No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illus. by R. Gregory Christie
Middle School, High School Carolrhoda Lab 188 pp.
2/12 978-0-7613-6169-5 $17.95
e-book ed. 978-0-7613-8727-5 $12.95
Inspired by Marcus Garvey and the drive to make a difference, Lewis Michaux opened the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem at the end of the Great Depression with an inventory of five books and a strong faith that black people were hungry for knowledge. Over the next thirty-five years, his store became a central gathering place for African American writers, artists, intellectuals, and political figures, including Malcolm X, who frequently gave his speeches in front of the bookstore. But Michaux also sought to reach ordinary citizens, believing that pride and self-knowledge would grow naturally from an understanding of global black history and current events. He didn’t just sell books; he surrounded his customers with ideas and provocative discussion. He also drew people in with pithy window signs that used humor and clever rhymes. When Sugar Ray Robinson stopped by in 1958, for example, Michaux communicated his disapproval of the hair-straightening products the boxer used: “Ray what you put on your head will rub off in your bed. It’s what you put in your head that will last ’til you’re dead.” Short chapters—some just a paragraph or two—are written in thirty-six different voices, mostly those of Michaux himself, family members, and close associates. Some of the voices are those of fictitious characters based on composites—customers, a newspaper reporter, a street vendor—but most are real people whose statements have been documented by the author in her meticulous research. The voices are interspersed with documents such as articles from the New York Amsterdam News and Jet magazine and with excerpts from Michaux’s FBI file. As Michaux’s grandniece, the author also had access to family papers and photographs. Given the author’s close relationship with the subject, she manages to remain remarkably objective about him, largely due to her honest portrayal of the lifelong conflict between him and many of his family members, most notably his evangelist brother, who didn’t approve of his radical politics. Sophisticated expressionistic line drawings illustrate key events. An extraordinary, inspiring book to put into the hands of scholars and skeptics alike. Appended are a family tree, source notes, a bibliography, further reading, and an index of historical characters. (K. T. Horning)
Life: An Exploded Diagram
by Mal Peet
High School Candlewick 387 pp.
10/11 978-0-7636-5227-2 $17.99
e-book ed. 978-0-7636-5631-7 $17.99
In this fictional memoir, which spans the years 1945 to the present, Clem Ackroyd tells the story of his working-class origins and postwar Norfolk upbringing and, especially, his clandestine relationship with Frankie Mortimer, upper-class daughter of the local landowner. While in 1962 Clem and Frankie move ever deeper into love and lust, the Americans and Russians are facing off over Castro, Cuba, and nuclear missiles—a backdrop, metaphor, and historical event that charges the plot and themes of Peet’s story. Th is is mesmerizing through the sheer force and liveliness of its prose, as well as its unpredictable, inexorable plot. Peet’s gift for imagery (“the morning rain had wandered off like a gray cat bored with a kill” or “[he had a] smile like a bad set of dentures shoved into a steamed pudding”) makes the novel fizz with the intensity of an adolescent’s heightened perceptions—in which everything is alive, and even boredom is an all-engrossing activity. Place, period, and adolescent passion all come through with exuberant feeling and humor (“Chapter 25. You Learn Nothing about Sex from Books, Especially If They’re by D. H. Lawrence”); Peet’s subtle, literary play with narrative voice, style, and chronology make this a satisfyingly sophisticated teen novel. Outstanding. (Deirdre F. Baker)
Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
High School Hyperion 337 pp.
5/12 978-1-4231-5219-4 $16.99 g
e-book ed. 978-1-4231-5325-2 $16.99
Wein’s exceptional—downright sizzling—abilities as a writer of historical adventure fiction are spectacularly evident in this taut, captivating story of two young women, spy and pilot, during World War II. Wein gives us the story in two consecutive parts—the first an account by Queenie (a.k.a. Lady Julia Beaufort-Stuart), a spy captured by the SS during a mission in Nazi-occupied France. Queenie has bargained with Hauptsturmführer von Linden to write what she knows about the British war effort in order to postpone her inevitable execution. Sounding like a cross between Swallows and Amazons’s Nancy Blackett and Mata Hari, she alternately succumbs to, cheeks, and charms her captors (and readers) as she duly writes her report and, mostly, tells the story of her best friend Maddie, the pilot who dropped her over France, then crashed. Spoiler: unbeknownst to Queenie, Maddie survived the crash; part two is Maddie’s “accident report” and account of her efforts to save Queenie. Wein gives us multiple doubletakes and surprises as she ratchets up the tension in Maddie’s story, revealing Queenie’s joyously clever duplicity and the indefatigable courage of both women. This novel positively soars, in part no doubt because the descriptions of flying derive from Wein’s own experience as a pilot. But it’s outstanding in all its features—its warm, ebullient characterization; its engagement with historical facts; its ingenious plot and dramatic suspense; and its intelligent, vivid writing. (Deirdre F. Baker)