No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

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A documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller

"You can't walk straight on a crooked line. You do you'll break your leg. How can you walk straight in a crooked system?"

Lewis Michaux was born to do things his own way. When a white banker told him to sell fried chicken, not ...

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No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller

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A documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller

"You can't walk straight on a crooked line. You do you'll break your leg. How can you walk straight in a crooked system?"

Lewis Michaux was born to do things his own way. When a white banker told him to sell fried chicken, not books, because "Negroes don't read," Lewis took five books and one-hundred dollars and built a bookstore. It soon became the intellectual center of Harlem, a refuge for everyone from Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X.

In No Crystal Stair, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson combines meticulous research with a storyteller's flair to document the life and times of her great uncle Lewis Michaux, an extraordinary literacy pioneer of the Civil Rights era.

"My life was no crystal stair, far from it. But I'm taking my leave with some pride. It tickles me to know that those folks who said I could never sell books to black people are eating crow. I'd say my seeds grew pretty damn well. And not just the book business. It's the more important business of moving our people forward that has real meaning."

Winner of the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction
A 2013 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nelson and Christie, the team behind Bad News for Outlaws, blend photographs, original artwork, and archival materials with fictionalized first-person narratives to tell the story of Nelson's great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who opened a Harlem bookstore that served as a meeting place and symbol of black empowerment for 35 years. Tracing Lewis's roots to a childhood filled with questioning and rebellion, Nelson alternates between Lewis's voice and those of his parents, brothers, and others—characters who, like Lewis, spring to life on page. After rejecting a life in service of the church, Lewis leaves Virginia for Harlem, where in 1939 he opens the National Memorial African Bookstore, "by and about black people," earning the nickname "the Professor." The narrative expands to include the voices of Harlem business owners, residents, and store visitors over the decades, their stories and perspectives revealing how one man's vision helped galvanize his community. Nelson and Christie deliver an engrossing blend of history, art, and storytelling in this deeply moving tribute to a singular individual. Final art not all seen by PW. Ages 12–18. Agent: Tracey Adams, Adams Literary. (Feb.)
Children's Literature - Joella Peterson
Lewis Michaux might not be as well known to the civil rights movement as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcom X, but he was just as important. This book is mostly factual though characters were added to tell of Lewis' journey in helping African American's find a voice during the civil rights movement. Lewis didn't always know what he wanted to do with his life—he just knew life was not always fair. Eventually he came upon the idea that if he could get people to read books by and about African Americans, then perhaps they would not forget their heritage, which is the first step in being somebody. With five books and a hundred dollars, Michaux opened the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem, New York. Here, African Americans like Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Nikki Giovanni, and others talked about life, politics and everything in between. The short snippets of first person narratives (rather than pages of facts) make the text seem like something in-between a traditional historical fiction novel and a nonfiction book. The author does a great job of documenting where she got various bits of information, so although this is fiction, readers will learn just as much information about this lesser-known civil rights hero as if they were reading a biography. The only major frustration is that there were not more of the black and white sketches or corresponding photographs. Reviewer: Joella Peterson
VOYA - Jennifer Rummel
Lewis Michaux is not sure where he belongs in the world. As a boy, he is angry and stubborn about the treatment of his people. After floundering for several years, he finally finds a purpose in life. He starts a very small bookstore with only five books. Michaux decides to sell books written by black authors for black people. Before too long, his bookstore becomes the hottest cultural spot in Harlem. Everyone goes to the store to learn and to share ideas. Lewis Michaux's life is invested in the bookstore and the ideas behind it. No Crystal Stair is told in short, alternative perspectives, photos, FBI reports, and historical documents, creating an eye-pleasing and easy to read format. This eye-opening story starts with Lewis Michaux at the age of nine and ends with his death. His idea that people need to know their past to achieve their future resonates. He touched many lives, witnessed through the various perspectives in the book. During a pivotal period in history, he created a wondrous place. Significant historical figures, including many authors passed, through the bookstore: Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, and Louis Armstrong. This book will capture readers' interest from the first pages and they will find themselves still thinking about it weeks later. Reviewer: Jennifer Rummel
Kirkus Reviews
Lewis Michaux provided a venue for his fellow African-Americans to have access to their own history and philosophy at a time when the very idea was revolutionary. Michaux's family despaired of him, as he engaged in petty crime and was obviously headed in the wrong direction. He began to read, however, and discovered a connection to the writings of Marcus Garvey and others, and he determined that knowledge of black thinkers and writers was the way to freedom and dignity. With an inventory of five books, he started his National Memorial African Bookstore as "the home of proper propaganda" and built it into a Harlem landmark, where he encouraged his neighbors to read, discuss and learn, whether or not they could afford to buy. His clients included Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni. Nelson, Michaux's great-niece, makes use of an exhaustive collection of interviews, articles, books, transcripts and FBI files, filling in the gaps with "informed speculation." Brief entries arranged in mostly chronological order read seamlessly so that fact and fiction meld in a cohesive whole. Michaux's voice blends with those of the people in his life, providing a full portrait of a remarkable man. Copious illustrations in the form of photographs, copies of appropriate ephemera and Christie's powerfully emotional free-form line drawings add depth and focus. A stirring and thought-provoking account of an unsung figure in 20th-century American history. (author's notes, source notes, bibliography, index) (Fictional biography. 12-18)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780761361695
  • Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2012
  • Pages: 188
  • Sales rank: 624,514
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Lexile: 850L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 10.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson is the author of many books for young readers, including Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, which won the Coretta Scott King Award in 2010, and Almost to Freedom, which won a Coretta Scott King Honor for Colin Bootman's illustrations in 2007. Vaunda is a youth services librarian at the public library in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, where she lives with her husband.

To write No Crystal Stair, Vaunda spent years researching Lewis Michaux's life. She conducted interviews, sifted through library collections, examined family archives, and interviewed those who knew Michaux. In the end though, the man's full story (and even his date of birth) remained elusive. Only the tools of fiction could make a complete portrait.

R. Gregory Christie's illustrations have earned him three Coretta Scott King Honors and two spots on the New York Times' annual Best Illustrated Children's Books lists. Greg has also illustrated numerous jazz album covers and is a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 12, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    The author is the great-niece of Lewis Michaux, legendary bookse

    The author is the great-niece of Lewis Michaux, legendary bookseller of Harlem; she tells the story using written and audio interviews with Michaux, family mementos, and interviews with people who knew the man. Because not all information could be verified or learned, she added her own suppositions to the story. The final product is then a work of fiction which she fully acknowledges. Michaux started with five books and a desire to educate his Harlem neighbors using books "by and about black people." Civil rights leaders visited the National Memorial African Bookstore and Michaux became a person of interest by the FBI as a potential agitator. The bookstore flourished. Black and white photos and illustrations complement the story. 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award winner. The author won the Coretta Scott King award in 2010 for "Bad News for Outlaws;" this book might win her another such award.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2014

    I LOVE this book

    This book is fantastic!!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 20, 2012

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