In 2012, New Mexico celebrates its statehood centennial. This will be the first of a year-long series of posts on writers and books in New Mexico.
I was sitting geekily in my pajamas watching the ALA Youth Media Awards announcements in 2010, fully expecting to see Rebecca Stead and Jerry Pinkney win the Newbery and Caldecott, respectively. But the thing that made me choke on my toast was this: the winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award was Vaunda Micheaux Nelson for Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (Lerner, 2009). Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have trouble eating and reading at the same time, but this occasion was noteworthy because I work with Vaunda, and because I knew that she was attending ALA Midwinter as a member of the 2011 Caldecott committee (1).
There was a slight kerfuffle at the library when Vaunda returned from the conference. I think we’re all still kerfuffling inside two years later, because Vaunda never stops being amazing, whether it involves dressing like a pirate to advertise summer reading or writing a new book, the truly remarkable work of YA fiction, No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller (Carolrhoda Lab, 2012). I know that not all subtitles can contain the word “remarkable” but I really think this one should. When you see the words “documentary novel,” don’t think that it’s along the lines of Deborah Wiles’s Countdown. This is something completely different. And check out that cover by R. Gregory Christie, who also did the interior illustrations.
Lewis Michaux opened and ran the National African Memorial Bookstore in Harlem for nearly forty years, beginning in the Depression. He made this decision in a time when the opinion of most white bankers was that a bookstore that sold books by and about black people was a sure bet for failure. Michaux proved them wrong and made history in the process, along with friends like Langston Hughes, Malcolm X and Nikki Giovanni. Michaux is Vaunda Nelson’s great-uncle.
No Crystal Stair is written as oral history, based on interviews Vaunda did with family members and people who knew Lewis Michaux, and research in sources as diverse as newspapers, FBI files, and church newsletters.
First off, the epigraph you chose (“They call me the professor and I say, ‘You’re right. I professed to do something and I did it.’”) really gives a sense of who Lewis Michaux was–his way with words, and his incredible determination. That’s worth framing! Is that one of your favorite quotes from your great-uncle?
This is certainly a favorite quote for the reasons you have given. I also enjoy the way Lewis sometimes makes a word mean what he chooses — in this case “professor.” But there are so many memorable quotes from my uncle. This was part of the fun in my journey through this project.
Although this story is fictionalized, you’ve taken care to ground it in real events. One of the first things we see Lewis do is steal a bike (and later on he goes “pig picking”), so it’s clear to the reader that you’re not setting him up as a conventional hero. Talk a little about his character, and what made you want to tell his story.
It’s true that Lewis wasn’t heroic in the way the Bass Reeves was. I can’t describe him as “right as rain from the boot heels up.” But in many ways I can say he was a “square shooter.” He spoke his mind. You knew where you stood with him. As my mom once said, “He wasn’t two faced like some.” Although there are aspects of Lewis’s character that are not admirable, the more I uncovered about him, the greater my passion grew for him and his story. He was a person worth knowing.
I’ll say! I love the photographs of Lewis with various prominent people of the time.
Like Who Will I Be, Lord? (Random House, 2009), this is a family history project. The form you’ve used here is particularly interesting, though: it’s an oral history-style “documentary novel” made up of hundreds (I didn’t count, but it must be hundreds) of pieces attributed to dozens of viewpoints: you’ve got family members, bookstore customers, newspaper articles, FBI files, and of course Lewis himself, as well as many others, all weighing in a different times with their opinion, sometimes despairing, most often awed, about Lewis and his bookstore. How does compiling a work this way change how you see your great-uncle?
It’s looking at the whole person, or attempting to. The process made me dig deep and see more. It’s one of the things I admire about Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems. She not only informs readers about Carver’s brilliance and accomplishments, she leaves us with the essence of the man, the nature of his spirit. I attempted to do this with No Crystal Stair. I hope I succeeded.
Lewis Michaux was a dedicated bookseller. He started his business at a time (around the end of the Depression) and in a place (Harlem) that seemed to be inimical to bookselling, and yet he was a great success. What is the role of the bookseller today, when we’re (still) dealing with proving the relevancy of books and reading?
It’s no secret that independent booksellers are challenged in today’s business environment. First it was the big chains, now it’s online competition, too. Independent stores have one thing over the large chains — their stock, which includes those little gems, those obscure titles that stores like Barnes & Noble generally don’t carry. But now, the little gems (including out-of-print titles) are available through online retailers like Amazon. This eliminates the edge that small stores once had. Downloadable books, too, are challenging the print industry. But what the mom-and-pop bookstores still have to offer are knowledgeable, passionate staff and real, one-on-one customer service. What they have to offer is heart. Also there’s nothing like the experience of browsing bookstore shelves and discovering those obscure titles, pulling a book off the shelf, holding it in your hand and turning the pages. Browsing online can’t compare. The future? I don’t know. I admit that I’m nervous about what may become of brick-and-mortar neighborhood bookstores. I try to patronize these little shops to help keep them around.
Lewis started his business with 5 books. If you had to pick 5 books to start a bookstore (any kind of bookstore), which 5 would you choose?
This is one of those impossible if-you-were-marooned-on-a-desert-island questions. (C.L.-Sorry!) Lewis’s five books were basically what was available to him and not specifically selected. I suppose if I were starting a bookstore it would probably be focused on youth. And if I were choosing titles I might consider Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, To Kill a Mockingbird, The People Could Fly: American Folktales, The Polar Express, Pinocchio, Charlotte’s Web, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Flossie and the Fox, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, Frog and Toad are Friends, Eloise, You Don’t Know Me, The Borning Room . . . Obviously, choosing would not be easy. But it would be fun to see what five titles young people might pick.
That would be a great question for kids. Do you have any of your great uncle’s books? (I mean, ones that belonged to him and that he personally read.)
I have two books that he gave me when I visited the store in 1968 — The Masquerade by Oscar Micheaux (a historical novel) and a copy of the King James Bible. I know his son, Lewis Jr., has many books that belonged to his father.
The flyer for the closing of the bookstore lists “hundreds of children’s books” among the stock to be sold off. Do you know what any of those children’s books were?
I can’t know for sure, but I suspect books by authors like Gwendolyn Brooks, Julius Lester, Arna Bontemps, Sharon Bell Mathis, Ann Petry, Rosa Guy, Mildred Taylor, Lucille Clifton, Tom Feelings, Virginia Hamilton, and of course, Langston Hughes were among them.
The line from Alex Haley (“When an older person dies, it’s like a library burning to the ground”) seems like it could have been the inspiration for this entire work, trying to capture the voices of people who knew Lewis while they are still here. Did Lewis write much himself? And do you have plans to write about more of your family history?
Lewis recorded his philosophies and ideas through his own brand of poetry, much of which is in No Crystal Stair, but I don’t know that he wrote extensively. I love exploring family history and, if a new story or individual taunts me to pursue, I’ll follow. I’ve been kicking around a story about my grandmother Sinah, who married Lewis’ brother Norris. We’ll see.
Thank you Vaunda!
Vaunda Nelson is the author of ten books. She’s also a children’s librarian, and in 2012 she is the official New Mexico Centennial Children’s Writer.
1. Betsy Bird captured this moment on video here.
Here is School Library Journal’s interview with the March 2010 cover girl.
And her speech in The Horn Book.