There is a close-up photo of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking from a podium, holding on to it firmly as if he is leaning in to the enormous task ahead.
In the new book “That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World,” that photo is paired with a portrait of Rochelle Riley’s grandson, Caleb, then 8, who is wearing a similar suit and tie and copying the civil rights icon’s pose with an intensity beyond his years.
Cristi Smith-Jones, who took the photograph, has similar portraits of her daughter Lola, then 5, in various costumes as trailblazing politician Shirley Chisholm, millionaire entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, superstar singer Aretha Franklin and other amazing women.
Smith-Jones’ photos and Riley’s corresponding biographical essay form the basis for “That They Lived.” Published by Wayne State University Press, the book is aimed at children ages 8 to 12, but its stunning black-and-white photography and biographical essays make for inspiring reading at any age.
First and foremost, the book is a visual experience. If you don’t think history can be fun for kids, the images here might persuade you otherwise.
But “That They Lived” is also a chance to read biographical essays that cover the essential childhood moments of these towering figures.
The idea for the portraits goes back to January 2017, when Smith-Jones’ daughter shared what she had learned in school about Martin Luther King Jr. for the upcoming national holiday.
Smith-Jones saw an opening for more discussions about America’s history of slavery and the struggles and triumphs of the civil rights movement. But she wanted to try an approach that would be relatable to a 5-year-old.
Using her smartphone at first, plus clothes and props she already had at home, she started taking photos of her daughter dressed as prominent Black women from both history and contemporary times. The photos, posted on social media, quickly went viral and wound up reaching a global audience — drawing the attention of CNN and other news outlets and celebrated women like ballerina Misty Copeland and astronaut Mae Jemison.
Riley was among those who saw the photos and eventually reached out to Smith-Jones. The two brainstormed ideas that led to Riley’s grandson joining the book project, so that boys could be represented, too.
Riley said her mission with the book always was to help children understand “that all of these famous people used to be their age.” Her biographical essays begin by focusing on how these icons were shaped by their early years jazz genius Duke Ellington writing his first piece of music while a teenager working at a soda shop to journalist Ida B. Wells becoming the caregiver to her siblings at 16 after the tragic events of a yellow fever epidemic.
Although the message speaks to young readers, Riley sees the potential audience for “That They Lived” as extending to parents, teachers, and anyone interested in preserving and amplifying crucial histories that often aren’t found in current curriculums.
“These are not hidden figures,” she said. “These are figures that kids should know, and I’m demanding that they do know. I want adults to get these books so they know them and can teach them to their kids.”
Smith-Jones, too, sees the audience for the book as being as universal as the one that the photos had on social media.
“There have been people from all over the world and all different races that have approached it and said how much they are enjoying it and how much they’ve learned,” she said. “Anytime that happens, it’s incredible and inspiring to be a part of.”