Nonfiction is getting a rocket lift-off into the consciousness of educators … and publishers … throughout the United States. Why? The Common Core State Standards require that nonfiction text is included in the classroom. I, of course, am cheering over this. I haven’t put the list of books I’ve read on a scale, nonfiction on one side and fiction on the other, but I suspect the two sides would weigh up equally. I was the kid who would read anything that had a cover on it: comic books, magazines, books, maps, workbooks, coloring books (yes, I read them before I colored in them). I’ve been a relentless Seeker of Story, something every reader can become with the right books. And, although I love a good book of fiction, there’s something delicious about knowing that I’m reading something real in nonfiction.
I know the CCS and some people are hankering for us to call these books “informational text,” but doesn’t that sound deadly dull and dry? Nonfiction isn’t much better, but at least it’s neutral. Good nonfiction is far, far more than informational text. It’s inspirational, captivating, and adds texture to our sense of the way the world was, is, and could be.
I’ve spent the last several days reading a book that will be in my mind for months and years to come. No Crystal Stair: a documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller by Vaunda Michaux Nelson, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, and published by Carolrhoda/Lerner, is all that good nonfiction can be.
Before we get too far down the road of lauding this as nonfiction, I quote from About the Author at the end of the book, “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.” That’s right, it’s a NOVEL. Even says so in the subtitle.
Then why am I thinking of it as nonfiction? I’ve filled in many unfathomable holes in my knowledge of American history by reading this book. Ms. Nelson chooses the story of her great-uncle to convey the passion and yearning behind the Civil Rights Movement. This is no dry book of informational text. In short vignettes, short enough to intrigue a reluctant teen reader, we learn about the Michaux brothers, Lewis Henry and Lightfoot Solomon. One was a gambler and carouser who grew up to be a bookseller and inspiration for people who changed the world. The other was a religious evangelist who founded the Church of God in Newport News, Virginia, moving in the same circles as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and J. Edgar Hoover. There were other brothers and sisters, but the book focuses on the lives of these two. At odds throughout their lives, they still found room for respect and love. (Political players, take note.)
Lewis Henry Michaux, also known as The Professor, didn’t attend college. After drifting restlessly from job to job, gambling, being thought of as unreliable, Lewis is inspired by reading. He is moved by Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey. In 1919, Garvey advocated that Negroes should return to Africa, taking up productive lives in their former homelands. Lewis didn’t feel that was quite right, but his reading made him think about the power of the intellect, that reading could lift you up out of your circumstances.
Lewis took an idea to a banker. He wanted a loan for the start-up capital to open a bookstore for black people. The banker told him “Negro people don’t read.” Undaunted, Lewis took five books, a building, and $100 he borrowed from Lightfoot to open the National Memorial African Bookstore in 1939 in the center of Harlem, New York. It was a bookstore that sold books about black lives and people written by black authors and poets.
Through Lewis eyes, as well as a cast of characters who drop into the bookstore or touch on Lewis’ life, we meet Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, and Eldridge Cleaver. The reader, no matter the color of their skin, will understand the passion and the intellect behind the Civil Rights Movement in a tangible, memorable way.
There are photos and artifacts that have been in the Michaux family’s archives, newspaper articles, reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, poems. The back matter includes a family tree, source notes, a bibliography, permissions, further reading, and several author’s notes. I read every word in the book.
It is a novel because the writing that weaves the story is not taken directly from printed matter or audio records. It is a novel because it has a story arc and progression that are not often present in the messy veins of life. But the source notes document conversations, interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, and books from which the writing was adapted. This is nonfiction the way much of our lives are remembered from bits, pieces, journals, items from the boxes of stuff we hang onto … the memories we wrap around ourselves that tell the story of our lives.
I am grateful to Vaunda Michaux Nelson for sharing this part of her family’s story with us. I will always carry it with me.