by Vicki Palmquist
I go crazy when I hear that Vaunda Michaux Nelson has another book coming out. I’m a fan. For my own reading life, No Crystal Stair: a documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller, is one of my top ten books in the last ten years. I found every aspect of that book satisfying. I learned a great deal. Ms. Nelson’s writing style is well suited to narrative nonfiction: she makes it exciting.
So, when I heard that a picture book form of No Crystal Stair was on the horizon, my expectations were high. It would be illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, whose work I have loved ever since his Stars in the Darkness (written by Barbara M. Joosse) found me sobbing. But how would they compress all of the great true stories in No Crystal Stair into a picture book?
They’ve done it. Even the title appeals to younger readers: The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda, 2015).
The book is narrated by Michaux’s son, Lewis H. Michaux, Jr., who is justly proud of his father. It opens with Muhammad Ali’s visit to the store. Jump right in!
With the longer text in No Crystal Stair, Nelson builds a depth of understanding for Michaux’s commitment to books. In The Book Itch, she knows this is not needed for young readers. We learn the parts that will interest this crowd. Michaux started with five books, selling his reading materials out of a pushcart. He couldn’t get financing from a bank because the banker said “Black people don’t read.” Michaux believed otherwise. His store became a place to find, and read, books by and about black people.
Lewis Michaux was a good friend to Malcolm X. They were both political and believed “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” Nelson includes the heartbreaking scene that recounts Michaux’s reaction to the assassination of Malcolm X. His son had never seen his father cry before that day.
This book keeps history alive and vital by connecting us to The National Memorial African Bookstore, a place which was, in Michaux’s words, “The House of Common Sense and Proper Propaganda.” Christie’s illustrations are at once a record and a ribbon reaching from the past, showing us how people felt. We often forget about this in our look back … and it’s essential to remember that important historical figures were just like us, thinking, acting, laughing, hurting.
Ms. Nelson’s place in my list of Best Nonfiction Authors is firm. This is a book that belongs in every library, classroom, and on family bookshelves. Books bring us freedom.