When you're 10 years old, all history is ancient history. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement are tired topics in a textbook, no more immediate than Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad.
"The National Civil Rights Museum Celebrates Everyday People" Alice Faye Duncan, photographs by J. Gerard Smith (Bridgewater, $16.95, 64 pages, ages 7-11) helps turn students on to the recent past. It takes readers on a tour of the museum, which opened in 1991 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn.
The motel where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, has been renovated, with 10,000 square feet of exhibitions. Visitors can climb aboard a 1950s-vintage Montgomery, Ala., city bus and settle next to a life-sized statue of Rosa Parks. They can perch on stools alongside statues of students staging a sit-in at a Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter.
Ms. Duncan is an efficient tour guide, giving plenty of historical background while conveying the courage of the everyday folks who fueled the movement.
The book has an effective mix of archival photos and Mr. Smith's sharp, color shots of youngsters involved in the museum's exhibits. The tour is presented chronologically, beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and ending with King's assassination in 1968.
Rooms 306 and 307 of the Lorraine have been restored to look exactly the way they did the day King was murdered. On one dresser sit empty coffee cups and filled ashtrays. The curtain is open, revealing a view of the balcony where King was shot. Outside, a wreath hangs from the balcony's metal railing. In the ++ parking lot are two cars that match the ones captured in the Life magazine photograph of King's assassination. The book closes with that photograph juxtaposed with one Mr. Smith took from the same angle, showing a group of youngsters on the balcony, the museum's final exhibit.
* Serving up history in picture books can be a tricky business, as evidenced in "The Story of Ruby Bridges," by Robert Coles, illustrated by George Ford (Scholastic, $13.95, 32 pages, ages 5-9).
Ruby Bridges was 6 when a federal judge ordered the desegregation of New Orleans public schools in 1960. She became the first black at William Frantz Elementary School, and white protesters gathered every morning to harass her on her way to class. Parents pulled all of the white students out of school, so Ruby spent each day alone with her teacher.
It's a powerful story, one that parents can read aloud to their own 6-year-olds. But the matter-of-fact narrative will have first-graders asking "Why?" time and time again, and a foreword is needed to help parents provide a social and historical grounding for Ruby's story.
A second problem is that 9-year-olds who can appreciate the book on their own are apt to find the picture-book format too babyish. Mr. Ford uses soft, watercolor washes that capture Ruby's round-faced innocence, but they'll probably turn off any boy older than 6.
That said, Dr. Coles -- a psychiatrist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose books include "Children of Crisis" and "The Political Life of Children" -- has taken a few months of one child's life and written about them in a way that illuminates a decade or more of history.
He brings a journalist's approach to the work, quoting from interviews with Ruby's mother and her teacher. And even though he omitted a foreword, an afterword does tell readers of the eventual return of white students to the school, and that Ruby went on to get her college degree, become a businesswoman, marry and have four children.
* Of local note: Author/illustrator Anna Grossnickle Hines will read from her books and sign copies at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9 at the Children's Book Store in Roland Park. Her newest picture books are "Big Help!" and "What Joe Saw."