Kadir Nelson on Illustrating Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech

IhaveAdream260Kadir Nelson is known for his incredibly beautiful children's book illustrations, including the 2013 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, I Have a Dream.  Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s groundbreaking "I Have a Dream" speech and Nelson shares his thoughts on what it means to him and how that influenced his experience illustrating I Have a Dream, a gorgeous picture book that includes an audio CD of Dr. King's complete speech, as it was delivered on August 28, 1963.

The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I HAVE A DREAM speech is a powerful occasion for me--every time I listen to the speech, it stops me in my tracks. I can remember the first time I heard it. I was in the 5th grade and my class assignment was to memorize and deliver the speech. And as I stood before my class the following morning, Dr. King’s words poured out of me.  As an unexpected side effect of speaking his powerful words, I somehow felt stronger, more confident, and very proud.

Over the years, I have created hundreds of paintings and illustrated books about a multitude of themes, and with each story I have made it a point to show the strength, love, and light that dwells within every character.

As I set about the great task of illustrating Dr. King’s marvelous words, I felt weighted with the responsibility of getting it right.

Before I began painting I listened to Dr. King’s speeches, I poured over books, hundreds of photographs, and I watched documentaries. I even traveled to our nation’s capital to further enrich my appreciation of Dr. King’s experience.

As I walked along the water’s edge all the way up the stairway of the Lincoln Memorial to the spot where Dr. King spoke, I looked out over the landscape and imagined what Dr. King saw as he stood there almost fifty years ago, and took it all in.  I felt privileged and humbled by my great task.

How could I illustrate Dr. King’s powerful words? I decided to use a progression of realistic and straightforward images to describe the setting and mood of the day of the speech, while also setting the stage for the jump to the images of Dr. King’s dream. And as matter of contrast, the images that describe Dr. King’s dream are more conceptual. As the speech progresses and the dream becomes clearer, both dream and reality merge with a fuller and more colorful palette.

The result is I HAVE A DREAM a celebration of Dr. King’s magnificent words that continue to move Americans from all walks of life to share his dream. It is a privilege to share it with you and I hope that the experience children will gain from reading Dr. King’s powerful words will make them feel stronger, more confident, and inspire readers of every age to contribute in their own way to Dr. King’s dream for America. --Kadir Nelson

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