No Crystal Stair: Author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson's 2012 BGHB Fiction Award Speech

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson“Knowledge is power! You need it every hour! Read a book!”

With words like these, how could I have resisted falling under the spell of Lewis Michaux? I am thrilled that his story has been embraced by so many others. The man who said, “If you don’t know and you ain’t got no dough, then you can’t go and that’s for sho’!” would be strutting, proud. I certainly am.

I am honored to find my work in the company of the wonderful creators who have spoken here tonight. I want to thank the members of the Boston Globe–Horn Book committee — Thom Barthelmess, Lauren Adams, and Megan Lambert — for honoring Lewis’s story and helping bring him and his bookstore to readers, young and old. You are forever in my heart. I am grateful, also, to Roger Sutton and The Horn Book Magazine for championing children’s books and reading.

There is a large cast of people, some now passed on, who played parts, large and small, in this project. I owe much to family, longtime and newfound friends, librarians, fellow writers, editors, and those who gave their time and shared their knowledge of, and affection for, Lewis and his National Memorial African Bookstore. Thank you, Greg [Christie], for your inspired drawings. Above all, I thank God for enabling me to fulfill this dream and for sending me my husband, Drew, without whom this book would never have been completed.

I did not experience the kind of troubles my great-uncle Lewis had growing up, but, like Lewis, books were crucial in the making of me.

My love of reading began at bedtime — story time at my home. Our parents read to us every night, and kept on long after we could read on our own. They created a world in which books were valued. We saw them reading, and Dad often recited poetry from memory. They taught me to love words and respect their power.

Knowing what I know now, I have no doubt that my father’s love of literature, particularly poetry, was influenced by Lewis. My mother, too, who worked in the bookstore before marrying my dad, must certainly have caught the fever. I might be standing here today because of Lewis’s influence.

Lewis once said, “Where did I get that literary idea? I could have been an iceman.” If he had been an iceman, I wouldn’t be speaking to you about him now. And I have to wonder, would I have become a writer? I may owe more to him than I know.

I never really knew my great-uncle. My father’s side of the family lived in New York. In the summer, my parents and my brothers and sisters and I would pile into our Chevy station wagon and drive from Pittsburgh to Westchester County for a weeklong visit. We spent most of our time at my paternal grandparents’ home in Port Chester or playing in the sand at Rye Beach. I may have been at the store more than I remember, but I have only one fairly clear memory.

TVaunda Micheaux Nelson "No Crystal Stair"he bookstore was narrow and crowded with books and pamphlets and customers, and I remember the portraits of famous black people lining the walls, looking down on me. Uncle Lewis gave me two books — The Masquerade, An Historical Novel by Oscar Micheaux, and a copy of the King James Bible. I was fourteen. The experience must have meant something to me because these books remain in my collection.

Fast forward to the late 1980s, to the University of Pittsburgh School of Library and Information Science.

“Micheaux? Are you related to that Harlem bookseller?”

Time and again I was asked this by other students and professors. Apparently, big things had occurred at the National Memorial African Bookstore. I wanted to find out what these people knew about my family that I didn’t, and so began my research.

I was simply compiling family history. A book was not in my plans. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the notion of a biography became real. By then, I had learned enough about Lewis to realize the bookstore was only his culmination, that the real story lay in his inspiring journey.

It started as straight biography and evolved into something my husband labeled “documentary fiction.”

I lived with this project for fifteen years, putting it on the back burner when I had to. I am a full-time youth services librarian and was writing other books along the way, so I couldn’t actively work on it every day, but the story was always hovering, enticing me back into Lewis’s world, challenging me to finish.

Creating voices for the individuals in No Crystal Stair was some of the most enjoyable composing I’ve ever done. The process allowed me to explore character in a deeper, more intimate way.

I was finding great pleasure in the writing of it but one day asked myself — what is this exactly? Teen biography? No, I had already crossed the line into invention, and invention spells fiction. But was it teen fiction? By page 14, Lewis is an adult. Where was the teenage protagonist? Even if I found an editor who liked it, could it pass muster in an acquisitions meeting? What publisher would buy this book?

I realized it didn’t matter. I needed to continue the project for my family. There was much support coming from that direction — including from Lewis himself. His spirit was there — prodding. He wanted his story told, and I knew in my soul that someone, the Lord or Lewis himself, had chosen me to do it. So I forged ahead and finally reached the end of the first draft in the new format.

In the last chapter, the final voice was Lewis Junior’s. To write his chapters I replayed an interview I had taped with him years earlier. As I listened, it occurred to me there was another story here — a picture book from this child’s point of view. Lewis Jr. had told some wonderful tales about the people he’d met in the store, and about his relationship with his father. A picture book might be more marketable. Perhaps this was the way to introduce Lewis Sr. to young people of today.

So I returned the larger project to the back burner, put my efforts into writing a picture book, and eventually sent it to my amazing agents, Tracey and Josh Adams. Tracey sent it on to my extraordinary editor Andrew Karre at Lerner. It struck a chord. Tracey told me that Andrew said, “I’d love to see a teen biography about this guy.” “Well,” I said, “I have something. It’s not nearly finished and it’s not really a biography any more. But I’m happy to let Andrew read it.” The rest is history.

In 2011, I had lunch with Andrew at ALA in New Orleans and expressed my thanks for the company’s courage in taking on a book that may be destined for the remainder bin. He said, “Vaun, we’re Carolrhoda LAB. It’s what we do — experiment.”

Thank you, Andrew, Adam Lerner, and everyone at Carolrhoda, for your commitment to “boundary-pushing fiction for teens and their sympathizers.” Thank you for your belief in this book. And thank you, Megan, Lauren, and Thom, for validating that belief.

Sometimes you have to do an awful lot of writing to figure out exactly what it is you have to say, to find the story you want to tell and the path that works best for the telling. The late Professor William E. Coles Jr. called this kind of prewriting “throat-clearing.” I owe much to Bill Coles, with whom I had the privilege to teach in the University of Pittsburgh writing program. He brought me to tears numerous times, and I probably learned more about writing from him than from any single individual. I like the term throat-clearing. It’s precise, clarifying.

Sometimes my throat-clearing takes place on the inside, before pen is ever put to paper. More often, I think I have an idea for a story and, with great enthusiasm, set to writing it, only to find, after multiple revisions, that my original thought was not the story at all but only the idea that led to the real story.

It’s like finding your way through a maze. You wish you could have simplified the task by taking the direct route, which you can clearly see now that you are out but, deep inside, you know if you had taken the direct route, you wouldn’t have come out the same…not really.

No Crystal Stair may have taken fifteen years, but it needed those years. I needed those years to become a better writer. I made exciting discoveries along the way which led me in unexpected and rewarding directions, directions I wouldn’t have taken if I’d found my way out of the maze sooner.

Lewis somehow figured out that reading was a good thing for him and it would be a good thing for other striving African Americans. He believed that who we become depends a great deal on our desire to be educated, our efforts to know our history and ourselves, to discover how we might contribute.

Pastor Charles Becknell, who frequented the bookstore, told me, “Alex Haley said that when an older person dies, it’s like a library being burned to the ground…Lewis Michaux took his knowledge with him. But it wasn’t a complete destruction. He transferred some of it to people who came into his bookstore. He left tentacles that reached a lot of people like me. So his spirit is still here. That didn’t go away with him. It’s what we all need to do, leave something that spreads to other people.”

In his final days, Uncle Lewis said to my brother: “You’re building upon a strong family, a strong history that will be lost unless somebody picks it up. There has to be somebody who’s part of it in spirit to keep climbing, to make it a reality.”

I hope, through No Crystal Stair, I’m doing my part.

This speech was originally delivered on September 28, 2012, at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards Ceremony at Simmons College. Click here for illustrator R. Gregory Christie's acceptance speech for No Crystal Stair.
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s latest book No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller (Carolrhoda Lab), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, was the winner of the 2012 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for fiction.

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