With Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, Nancy Churnin demonstrates the value of human dignity by emphasizing the power of words and the strength of kindness. The book introduces young children to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank through the slender connection of their common birth year. Churnin wisely avoids overstating the similarities between King and Frank by beginning the book with a simple statement of fact: “In 1929, two babies were born on opposite sides of the ocean. They never met. They didn’t even speak the same language. But their hearts beat with the same hope.”
Indeed, the origins and life trajectories of the book’s protagonists were substantially different. King, in the thirty-nine years before his life was brutally cut short, was at the center of the civil rights movement. Frank was a teenager at the time of her death in Bergen-Belsen. Through her diary, she later became a symbol of different concepts: the need to combat antisemitism, Jewish national self-determination, the horrors of genocide, and the power of young women’s voices.
Churnin documents the oppression that both King and Frank confronted, emphasizing racial separation laws which governed both Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South. Then the protagonists’ paths diverge; King becomes an activist, fighting with unbending persistence and courage to effect change, while Frank hides in an attic along with her family. In order to maintain the link between them, Churnin continually describes their common optimism: “Martin decided to become a minister who would lead his people to stand up for justice,” and “Even with all the hate around her, Anne believed that people were really good at heart.”
In fact, the complete version of Frank’s diary and the accounts of those who knew her show that the reality is more complex. We cannot assume that her faith in humanity was as uncomplicated as Churnin declares it to be, but a picture book for young children must inevitably simplify some of the facts of history’s most terrifying events. When Churnin writes that King “was shot and killed by a man who didn’t believe black people deserved the same rights as white people,” she leaves unstated that these rights included even the right to live.
Yevgenia Nayberg’s memorable illustrations of King and Frank draw on European painting traditions, notably distancing them from some of the most iconic images we have of these heroes. Some images bring Chagall to mind; a sepia-toned two-page spread depicts the pages of Frank’s diary scattered in space, while the small building housing the secret annex is shown toppled over in one corner. Another illustration of Anne seated on her bed, writing, echoes Modigliani’s elongated portraits. Civil rights marchers appear in one picture only as legs and feet, stepping on signs demanding segregation: “whites only,” and “colored waiting room.” The variety of Nayberg’s images balances the simplicity of Churnin’s message, adding depth to this story of unvarying optimism which concludes, “Love is stronger than hate. Kindness can heal the world.”
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.