Monthly Archives: June 2012

Revisiting: Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine

Then she was smoked, delicately. She was delicately smoked. Delicately smoked was she.

Those are my favorite lines from dual Caldecott Medalist Chris Rachka’s Arlene Sardine. When this story, about a little fish who wants to be a sardine, was published way back in 1998 it created a fair amount of controversy given the fact that the title character dies mid-way though the book. Some thought it hilarious (count me among them), some thought it dreadful, and some were simply perplexed. (You can listen to Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon read and discuss it here and you can see several pages of the book by clicking on Amazon’s Look Inside feature.) I adore it partly, no doubt, due to having seen Chris do his puppet show version where he blew powder over the can for the lines above and involved the audience which delighted the children, as you can imagine. But I also love the art work and the smart, witty, and spare text. For me, it is part of a genre of subversive children’s books that we adults can never quite figure out — are they meant to be straight serious or straight humorous?  Strewelpeter very much fits this tradition for me; I see both books as tongue-in-cheek funny as well as meant to get readers thinking. In the case of Arlene Sardine I’d say the thinking part is about death and about our food. Chris has explained that the genesis of the book came from his eating sardines and wondering how they ended up in the can. Seems to me we are kidding ourselves if we don’t think kids wonder about that too.

Related:

In the Classroom: Chris Rashka

Deliciously Demented Books

Pets and Other Fishy Books (This is an article I did for Horn Book in which, among other things, I describe a class of mine not getting Arlene Sardine. Classes since then have loved it in the same way they love the snipping of the bunny tails in Bunny Days and other such books. More on my thoughts as to why here.)

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Interview with Chris Rashka

Chris Raschka and His Round-the-World Sardine “Arlene” (Found in the comments to this post. Pinkwater weighs in too.)

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ALA Moments 3

This is really a coda featuring Long Beach Airport, an unusually small airport given its proximity to Los Angeles. That is, somehow you just don’t expect something that has the feel of the tropics more than that of the airport of media moguls and the like.

The afternoon before we left I stopped by the Hilton cab stand to check about when we needed to leave for the airport. A tall dud (he epitomized that term) in a black suit and an earpiece immediately told me I could “arrange” for a cab for the next morning. After some unintelligible talk of freeway numbers we scheduled things and I smugly took off and told my roommate that I’d gotten everything ready. Long story short — we figured out he was not legit, cancelled, and took a regular cab. The thing was sketchy from the get go (he fumbled about claiming to be looking for his badge when I wondered if he was a  Hilton staffer) and being a veteran traveler who is usually hyper vigilant about scams I’m  still red-faced at having been so gullible.

At the airport I ran into Lane Smith who was waiting for the same flight and we hung out together. Lane and I first met many, many years ago when I tagged along with a 4th grade student of mine to his then-in-NYC-studio where she interviewed him for a little self-published newspaper of hers. If you like Lane’s work, especially the more subversive stuff and don’t know it yet, do check out his Curious Pages. On the plane he gave Roxanne a delightful drawing for her daughter drawn on a barf bag (how’s that for alliteration?).

What else? For days I (and many others) had been seeing #printzaccordian tweets from Victoria Stapleton related to the accordion she was literally lugging cross-country for Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman’s Printz speech.  Much as I wanted to see the actual speech I wanted more to spend some time with far-flung friends so had to miss what I heard was a fantastic evening.  But then at the airport, there was stalwart Victoria and the accordion.  And here is my final shot of her at JFK, shortly before the accordion headed to Brooklyn and the hashtag to oblivion, no doubt to Victoria’s pleasure — that instrument is heavy!

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ALA Moments 2

Was surprised by how much I enjoyed the readers’ theater at Scholastic’s Sunday Brunch.  The deal is that a group of writers each present a snippet of each of their books. This time I learned that Sharon Flake can do some very convincing wiggles, Sharon Cameron‘s got  loads of good humor, David Shannon is ready to try out for High School Musical, Trent Reedy can do earnest with great conviction, Raina Telgemeier acts with her whole body, Eliot Schrefer is most convincing, and James Dashner can pull off every sort of British accent from cockney to Downton Abbey.  Great fun!

Then I was on to an S &S illustrators lunch where Raul Colon spoke of how he managed to work nonstop for days to complete the illustrations for Jill Biden’s Don’t Forget, God Bless the Troops, Denise Fleming spoke of her fascinating process making paper for underGround, Loren Long spoke of his development of the small bat character in Nightsong, Ashley Wolff spoke of her printmaking process for Baby Bear Sees Blue, and Peter Brown showed how he developed his art for Creepy Carrots!.  Fascinating stuff.

Then on to a very good panel on the New Nonfiction where there was plenty of passion and conversation.  Panelists included my good friends Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt (of Heavy Medal fame), Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, and Susan Campbell Bartoletti.

Then it was time for the one and only Newbery Caldcott Banquet where Chris Rashka and Jack Gantos gave splendid speeches. If you get a chance, be sure to read and view them. Both were so heartfelt and genuine while also very much the sum total of each man, Chris’ being pensive and intriguing while Jack’s was outrageous at moments (as in his books), funny, and caring.  What a great night (even if my dessert was brought to my table and removed before I ever saw it. Darn you, Marriott servers!).

On Monday I went to the ALSC awards, had lunch with the delightful Lisa Brown, and a giddy (as we were so overtired by then) dinner with Starr LaTronica, Linda Perkins, Nina Lindsay, Roxanne Feldman, and Melissa Sweet (who did something way, way too kind at the end — we seriously owe her).

Now it is Tuesday morning and I need to get up and get ready to fly home.  Thanks once again to all the publishers for hosting me at so many wonderful events. Great, great conference!

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ALA Moments 1

Went to Disneyland for the first time ever four years ago so this time I had some sense of what to expect.  We started in Fantasyland intending to do a few story rides. Got to the Alice one only to hear them announce that there was a problem and those on the ride should just relax as it would be repaired in 30 minutes. 30 minutes!  That meant a lot of very small children in very dark tunnels in very small vehicles.  We turned and did Small World instead. Came back later and did Alice, Peter Pan, and Toad.  Had a very relaxing lunch of fake BBQ and watched fake cowboys yodel (sort of). Pet a donkey and a horse. Relaxed at a fake New Orleans square (remembering we’d been at the real thing a year ago) and then went on the more eye-opening of all rides — the Jungle Cruise.  Scary headhunters shaking spears along with roaring animals. Really?  In 2012?

Delightful dinner at Catal Restaurant with Chronicle celebrating author Ellis Weiner and his new book The Templeton Twins.  Great food and conversation — Ellis wrote for National Lampoon and Spy Magazine back in the day and it was a lot of fun to reminisce about those iconic publications. Ended the evening at Macmillan’s dessert reception and saw lots of folks.

Garth Nix was very gracious as I gushed over him at the HarperCollins breakfast. May I now take a moment to recommend A Confusion of Princes — an extremely entertaining romp of a space opera.

Top secret meeting about the 2013 SLJ Battle of the Kids’ Books….shhh.

Outstanding presentations at a Penguin lunch for Middle Grade Readers. Four authors spoke, three of them discussing their process with their editors.  Excellent — more of these sorts of things, please. The authors were: Adam Gidwitz (In a Glass Grimmly)  Sheila Turnage (Three Times Lucky), Sheila O’Connnor (Keeping Safe Stars), and Joan Bauer (Almost Home).

A wonderful reunion with Laura Amy Schlitz, some of her Candlewick peeps, and a healthy number of my fellow 2008 Newbery Committee members.

Met Tao Nyeu at Penguin’s cocktail party and was able to let her know how much I and my fourth graders adore her books.  Bunny Days was a touchstone book for them, but I think her new friendship book, Squid and Octopus may be its equal.  Hurray to those boots, socks, and mittens!

And then there was Little Brown’s dinner with …. the truly one and only Lemony Snicket, or rather his representative, Daniel Handler.  Managed to spill red wine all over the white table cloth (but fortunately not on anyone), converse with the always-witty Mr. Handler and his delightful wife Lisa Brown, and had an overall wonderful time.  Can’t wait for the new book, Who Could That Be at This Hour?

Got to hold William Joyce’s Oscar (it is heavy!) at S &S’s dessert reception and express my love of Fake Mustache to Tom Angleberger.

Thanks to all the publishers and friends for such a great time so far.  Now on to Sunday.  Jack Gantos and Chris Raschka await!

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More Regarding Maurice Sendak

Only a few people have been both great writers and great illustrators of children’s books. In the nineteenth century there was Edward Lear, and in the twentieth Dr. Seuss and—perhaps the most gifted of them all—Maurice Sendak, who died in May at the age of eighty-three.

Alison Lurie is her usual perceptive self in “Something Out of Almost Nothing” at the NYRB.

And then here is a reading of Where the Wild Things Are that I hadn’t seen recently (say since the episode originally ran, to be honest).  Via Michael Patrick Hearn.

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In the Classroom: Why I Teach

School ended last week. Now I’m what tends to be termed a “veteran” classroom teacher. That is, I’ve been in the classroom since the mid 1970s. Many years. Decades in fact. Happily, unlike many of my generation, I’m not the slightest bit burnt out. I still love teaching. I love classroom teaching. I love spending a year with a group of children, helping them grow and learn, inspiring them and having them inspire me.

This is no doubt partly because I teach at a private school not under the yoke of government mandates. A place where I can be creative and not be oppressed by tests, standards, and other outside demands. Ironically, I had every intention of teaching in public schools at the start of my career, having attended them myself, but there were no jobs available. (Instead there was that iconic New York Post headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead“)  And so I grabbed a position at a failing private school, moved to a better one for a few years, and eventually landed at where I’ve been for almost thirty years now. I have to wonder where I’d be if I’d been in public schools — perhaps not in the classroom any more, maybe doing something else, maybe thinking retirement. Kudos to those who do continue the good fight after decades in public schools — from what I know I’m not sure I could do it.

This school year was a challenging one for me for non-school reasons and so I wondered if I’d been as successful with my class as I’d liked. Happily, the comments and notes  that I received last week reassured me that I had nothing to worry about.

But the best thing that happened was at graduation. We are a K-12 private school and so faculty from all levels are encouraged to attend. Some years families and graduates are touched to see me and other years they seem to have forgotten me. I mean, 4th grade is a long way from 12th after all. This year it was the former. So many families and kids reminiscing about their time with me. One in particular. This was a young person who had been a major presence that year and thereafter for others as well.  Eccentric and intense, I’d adored him.  And as he made his way through the school I would see him occasionally and hear about him through others. Last week he was in the front row in graduation facing me and I wondered what he was thinking. Afterwards I wandered about trying to find my old students and their families. I’d given up on finding this student and was about to leave when suddenly there he was, right in front of me. “I have been looking everywhere for you!” he declared. And with that we hugged and talked about his time in my classroom so many years ago. We talked about things he’d love then, still loved, and was going ahead to learn more about in college. It was wonderful. Clearly I’d had something to do with his learning; I was remembered as a significant teacher; I had done well with him. This, I thought, is why I teach.

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On Father’s Day I think of mine…

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My father, who passed away three years ago, continues to be a major inspiration for me.  In honor of him and the day here is a post from a few years back that captures a tiny bit of what he was all about.

Born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1922, my father Lewis J. Edinger fled with his mother to America at the age of fourteen; his father chose to stay, hoping to ride things out, but was deported and killed. Years later, as a newly minted PhD, my father took whatever jobs he could find; one of those was in Montgomery, Alabama at the time of the bus boycott.  I was reminded of this at yesterday’s event with Claudette Colvin and so here are some excerpts from my father’s memoir about that time in his life.

I got my haircuts at Maxwell Air Force Base from a black barber with…

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Screenwriter Geoff Rodkey on his New Children’s Book, Deadweather and Sunrise

Writing a children’s book seems to be a popular endeavor among those better known in other areas.  Models, iconic musical comedy performers, television stars, and comics have all taken a stab at it with varying results.  Now along comes screenwriter (of Daddy Day Care among others) Geoff Rodkey with his first book for young readers, Deadweather and Sunrise, the first volume in the Chronicles of EGG.  Admittedly skeptical of yet another Harry Potteresque series, I ended up enjoying it tremendously as have many others including Rick Riordan who described it as “…Lemony Snicket meets Pirates of the Caribbean,with a sprinkling of Tom Sawyer for good measure.” And because the book was so much fun I figured an interview with its creator would be fun too.

How would you describe your book to those who aren’t terribly interested in it or you? That is, to those folks taking a quick look at this post and wondering if they should read on. What can you say to encourage them?

“This is the greatest book supposedly written for kids since Roald Dahl kicked the bucket.”

Too much?

How about, “if you loved The Princess Bride–not matter how old you are–you will love this book, too?”

I’d go with “Buy this book! We went to college together!” But at this point, I’ve already made that appeal to everyone I went to college with. And high school. And elementary school. Say what you will about Facebook–it’s a very effective tool for forcing things on your friends. Or, in this case, your friends’ kids.

What was the inspiration for the book (beyond the mercenary one)?  What led you in the direction of an alternate past, islands, and pirates, and grand adventure? Instead of, say, a contemporary story about an…er…cute kid turning into a dog? Or just a story about a cute dog?

For one thing, I’m allergic to dogs, which means my kids can’t have one–and if I wrote a story about a dog, I’d just make them angry, and I take enough abuse already when we walk past pet store windows.

But I’ve also never been all that interested in the magical or the supernatural, either as a reader or a writer. I’d rather create a world that’s just slightly more screwed up than the real one (which is increasingly challenging, considering the state of the real world).

In the case of the book, an idea popped into my head for a character who was a pirate, and I just sort of followed that where it led, which was to the Caribbean of the 17th and 18th century. But as I researched that era, the reality of it quickly became constraining. Not only did I not want to deal with issues like African slavery and epidemic disease–both of which were rampant and incredibly depressing–but early on, I came up with a plot point involving a hot air balloon, and those weren’t invented until the 19th century.

So I figured I could save myself a lot of grief by just making everything up. And while I’d like to think it makes the book more fun for the reader, I’m certain it made the book more fun to write. I was able to cherry-pick the best parts of the historical research I did without killing myself trying to answer questions like how much a leg of mutton cost in Port Royal in 1675, which would have felt like homework, and probably read that way on the page.

What are some of your favorite books for kids?  Favorite books in general?

There are way too many to list…but as far as kids’ books go, some of my favorites growing up were The Westing GameThe Pushcart War, E.W. Hildick’s McGurk mysteries, and a biography of Geronimo that I must have checked out from my elementary school library at least five times. And Bridge to Terabithia, which wrecked me emotionally when I was 11 like nothing else I’ve ever read. I was inconsolable for days after I finished that book. Which, now that I think of it, may not be an endorsement. But it was definitely an experience that stayed with me.

As an adult, three novels that stand out over the past few years were David Benioff’s City of Thieves, Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper, and Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist.

One thing many have noticed about the book is the excellent pacing — do you think your screenwriting background helped with this? Are there other aspects of screenwriting that helped or hinder you when switching to this form of writing?

My screenwriting experience was invaluable. If you take away the dialogue, scripts are just pure structure. So when I finally sat down to write a book, I had fifteen years’ worth of story structure pounded into my head, and that made it a lot easier to keep the plot on the rails.

But there’s a downside risk, which is that if you plot a novel too carefully, you’ll not only create something that feels formulaic, but you’ll stifle the input of your subconscious, which is where all the best material comes from. Stephen King wrote a memoir (On Writing) in which he talks about this at length–while it’s possible, and maybe even preferable, to start a novel without knowing where you’re going, I’d never try to write a screenplay without outlining a three-act structure in advance.

When I wrote the book, I tried to split the difference–I had a general idea of where I was going to end up, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there. For example, there’s a (somewhat mysterious) treasure the villain in the book is looking for, and I was halfway through the first draft before I figured out what it was.

I was particularly intrigued by the occasional mentions of the indigenous people of this alternate world of yours, those natives who were toiling away in the far off silver mine. I’m eager to see where you take this in the next book and wondering if you are finding any challenges as you do.

The biggest challenge with the Natives has been reconciling the constraints of writing for a middle grade audience with the reality of what indigenous Central American cultures were actually like. By modern standards, the Aztecs were just ridiculously violent–their whole religion was centered around human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of children–and they oppressed the lesser tribes in the area so ruthlessly that when the Spaniards showed up, a lot of the tribes not only welcomed them but allied with them to overthrow the Aztecs. It didn’t wind up working out so well for the other tribes–the Spaniards were no prize, either–but that’s what happened.

And while the world of the series is an imagined one, I wanted it to be fairly realistic–and I particularly wanted to avoid turning the Natives into some kind of noble savages, when the truth was that they could be every bit as unpleasant as the colonialists. And it’s an adventure story, so human sacrifice seemed like a real plus.

But when you’re writing for ten-year-olds, people get very skittish about things like ritual disembowelment–not so much the kids themselves (who I think not only can handle that kind of thing but are eager to read it), but the adult gatekeepers, from editors and booksellers all the way down to parents. So the challenge has been to write a story I think is faithful to the setting while rendering it in language that’s oblique enough that it won’t offend more delicate sensibilities.

I had a similar challenge with the pirates in Deadweather and Sunrise. I wanted them to act like actual pirates rather than some sanitized, Walt Disney version of pirates–and while I mostly managed to do that, there was one chapter in particular that I must have rewritten eight times. I never changed the fundamentals of what happened, but each time, I made the description a little less explicit and more indirect, so it’s possible to read it without fully grasping what’s going on.

Now I actually remember eating ugly fruit years ago, but I bet few who read your book will know they are real. What attracted you to them — the name? And pirates, why them?

The name was 95% of it. A grocery store near my house used to stock ugly fruit (technically, it’s Ugli fruit, which I believe is trademarked), and it seemed like an appropriately absurd-sounding-yet-real plantation crop. Plus it’s indigenous to the Caribbean, so there’s that.

The pirate thing just sort of happened–like I said, I had an idea for a character who was a pirate, and everything went from there. Oddly enough, that original character isn’t in the book. He was pirate who all the other pirates thought was cursed, so they wouldn’t let him on their ships, and the only work he could get was as a waiter in a pirate-themed restaurant. I still really like that idea, but as the world of the book developed, it got much less jokey and more realistic, so in the end, there just wasn’t a place for a pirate-themed restaurant.

Tell us a bit about your three central kid characters. What was your thinking as you shaped Egg, Millicent, and Guts?

I don’t know. My original idea for the main character was a snotty, obnoxious, recently orphaned rich kid. In the couple of years I spent thinking about the story off and on, he somehow turned into Egg–but I can’t remember how or why. Part of it must have been that it’s tough to build an engaging series around a main character who’s a jerk.

Guts is the same way–looking back, I’m not sure where he came from. I’ve definitely never met a one-handed, semi-deranged cabin boy with undiagnosed Tourette’s.

Millicent’s easier–she’s the girl I would have fallen in love at first sight with if I’d met her when I was thirteen. Which is not to say she’s perfect–in fact, in a lot of ways, she’s a pain in the neck. But so are most thirteen-year-olds.

The book is chock full of one escapade after another, almost non-stop action. Did you have more ideas for these than you were able to put in the book? Any favorites that had to be ditched? And if so, why were they cut?

There’s very little in the way of action sequences that got cut–mostly because I’m not that good at coming up with them, so almost everything I thought of got thrown in. But a lot of dialogue and little jokey bits got cut, because those are not only much easier to write, but tend not to be important to the story–so if you cut them, nobody notices, and the story moves that much faster.

What sort of research did you do and are you doing for the series?

I’ve done a lot of reading about that period of Caribbean and New World history. Some of the better books I’ve come across are Charles Mann’s 1491 and 1493 (about the pre-Colombian Americas and the consequences of European colonization, respectively); Michael Wood’s Conquistadors (about the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas); Henry Kamen’s Empire (a history of Spanish colonialism); and Matthew Parker’s The Sugar Barons (covering British plantations in the Caribbean).

As for books about pirates, the best recent one I’ve read is Stephan Talty’s Empire of Blue Water. David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag and Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates are also very good.

As it is a series you will be busy writing it for a while, but once you finish do you have any other ideas for kid books?

I have a lot of ideas, including a few for extending the Egg series beyond the current trilogy. But they’re all more vague aspirations than concrete plans at this point, so they’re probably best left undiscussed for now.

Anything else you want to communicate to this blog’s readers before we finish?

Thanks for reading this far! Feel free to click over to the celebrity swimsuit slideshow now.

And please buy my book. You won’t regret it.

Also at the Huffington Post

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Maurice Sendak Memorial

Yesterday I was honored and humbled to attend the Maurice Sendak Memorial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  First of all, I loved that it was at the Met.  As one speaker noted, there was something lovely about the big Ms everywhere, for us they were for Maurice the artist as much as for the museum. One of many epiphanies I had listening to the wonderful speakers, music, and seeing the art was that Maurice Sendak was not only a seminal person in the world of books for children, but was one of the greatest American artists of the past 100 years.  And so I only hope that before long this is recognized with an exhibit at the Met. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

On the screen was a lovely simple sketch of the young Mozart. It stayed there in between the other images until the end when it was replaced by the moving final image (also on the program above) of Jenny at the end of Higglety Pigglety Pop!.  I cannot even begin to describe the wonderful speeches and presentations and just hope that they will be made available in some form in the near future. I did not take notes so the best I can do is provide the program below with annotations and then a few more links to other reports of this very special event.

  • An excerpt from the documentary film Tell Them Anything You Want, directed by Lance Bangs and Spike Jonze.
  • Michael Di Capua, Sendak’s longtime editor.
  • Ali Bahrampour who was a Sendak Fellow.
  • Art Spiegelman who spoke about a brilliant collaboration that he and Sendak did for the New Yorker.
  • Illustrator Richard Egielski who did one of my all time favorite Cinderella variants, Ugh, written by Al Yorinks who was also at the memorial.
  • “Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow” by John Keats, read by Brad Kessler.
  • Judy Taylor Hough, his British editor, who spoke about some of what is also in this piece in yesterday’s Guardian.  The bit about the mouse was almost unbearably moving.
  • Jonathan Weinberg, connected through Sendak’s partner Eugene Glynn spoke of that part of Sendak’s, a part several other good book friends of his told me they’d never heard of before.
  • “Abendsegen” from Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck, sung by the Spence School Chamber Chorus.
  • Tony Kushner who organized the event.
  • No-Nose by Maurice Sendak, read by Catherine Keener.
  • Lynn Caponera, Sendak’s longtime friend and assistant was the final speaker.
  • An excerpt from an interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” September 20,2011.
  • Act Three, scene 2 Finale from Falstaff by Guiseppe Verdi, from Arturo Toscanini’s NBC radio recording, April 1, 1950 accompanied a glorious montage of covers from Sendak’s many, many, many books.
Other reports:

Remembering Sendak at the Met

Fans Bid Farewell to Sendak at NYC Memorial Service

A Sendak Tribute at the Met

Sendak’s Vilde Chaya

A Final Farewell to Maurice Sendak

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Absolutely delighted that No Crystal Stair won this year’s Boston Globe-Horn Book award for Fiction. Congratulations to all!

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I’m a fan of boundary crossings, those books that don’t sit neatly in one genre. Say Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck with their mix of textual and visual storytelling or Deborah Wiles’ Countdown with the atmospheric setting heightened through the use of documentary material. Now along comes another hybrid, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s superb No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller.

To say this is the story of a bookseller hardly does Lewis Michaux or his great-niece Nelson justice. For this bookseller was also political, socially aware, charming, smart, and a player through a significant historical time and place. Nelson spent years researching and figuring out how to tell the story of this incredible man. In her author note she writes:

Researching this family history was exciting and challenging, though nonexistent and conflicting information complicated the project…

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