|No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Nelson Carolrhoda Books/Lerner||The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate HarperCollins|
Judged by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
What does a self-educated radical bookseller have to do with a depressed 35-year-old strip-mall gorilla? More than it would appear. Both suffer violent childhoods and initially muddle through adulthood. Both grow to identify the oppression around them and decide to challenge it. Both rely on words, and the power of words, to seek justice. Both ultimately make a huge impact. And both No Crystal Stair and The One and Only Ivan, while fiction, are based on real-life tales of perseverance and victory.
No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller is written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, the great-niece of Lewis Michaux. Lewis Michaux’s story requires this “documentary novel” format rather than a typical non-fiction biography, as so much of his life was fabricated, mysterious, or now unknown — beginning with the date of his birth (sometime between 1884 and 1895) and his name (William Lonnell or Lewis H.; some family members use the name Micheaux, with an e). As a child, he was publicly lashed for stealing a sack of peanuts, and as a young man spent time on a chain gang for theft. At some point in the 1930s, he decided to open a bookstore in Harlem because “the so-called Negro needs to hear and learn from the voices of black men and women.” By the 1960s, his bookstore held hundreds of thousands of volumes, and served as a rallying point for the Civil Rights movement, particularly Malcolm X, who spent much time there.
Nelson tells this story from a dozen different points of view: Lewis, his parents and siblings (including his disapproving older brother, a preacher who rubbed shoulders with presidents), fictitious reporters, real-life acquaintances, and Lewis’s actual FBI files. She weaves in historic photographs, book covers — even death certificates. Some of the entries are only a few lines; none more than two pages. The voices come across as awed, angry, excited . . . each one engaging and believable. Nelson’s narrative traces the arc of twentieth-century African-American history, from the brutality of the Jim Crow South through the rise of Civil Rights, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the destruction wrought by urban redevelopment in the 1970s. No Crystal Stair is a compelling, thought-provoking read.
Captured as an infant, Ivan the gorilla spent twenty-seven years in a miserable circus-themed mall until public outcry released him to the Atlanta Zoo, where he lives today. The One and Only Ivan follows this true story, though Katherine Applegate adds a kindly old elephant, a “homeless by choice” mutt, and a baby elephant named Ruby whom Ivan vows to protect. Before he can help Ruby, however, Ivan must come to grips with the brutal truth about his past, for it is this truth that holds the key to Ruby’s rescue — truth plus the finger paints provided by the custodian’s ten-year-old daughter. And while Ivan cannot read, he understands humans — or, as he call us, “slimy chimps” — extremely well, and he figures out how to assemble those mysterious symbols known as letters into something that might save Ruby, and himself too.
Like No Crystal Stair, the entries in The One and Only Ivan are brief and engaging. Ivan tells his story in the present tense, keeping the reader engrossed in his drama and evolving self-awareness. The One and Only Ivan is often quite sad — I wept several times — but Ivan himself rarely lingers in self-pity, and he ultimately finds more happiness (va-va-voom, if ya know what I’m saying) than he had ever dreamed of in his plainspoken gorilla dreams. No Crystal Stair chronicles how one man believed literacy would elevate American blacks; The One and Only Ivan describes how literacy helps elephants, dogs, gorillas, macaws, and all the other animals trapped at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.
No Crystal Stair shares the flaw of many biographies in that the author makes her subject too important. Nelson’s Lewis Michaux occupies the center of a universe populated by celebrities who befriend him and ordinary folk, real and fictitious, who praise him. Yet I suspect Lewis Michaux fostered far more controversy than is reported here — controversy that would provide a powerful window into American thinking over the last century. The One and Only Ivan, although a sweet and heartbreaking story, at the same time is just a teensy bit precious (I say this having read Ivan before Crystal Stair). I found myself more thinking “but gorillas can’t write!” Well, yes, of course; anthropomorphism is an eternal staple of children’s literature. Young readers will delight in Ivan’s triumph. I, however, delighted more in the triumph of a self-made grocer’s son who spread the joy of books to hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged souls. The One and Only Ivan is dear, but my Battle of the Books vote goes to No Crystal Stair.
– Catherine Gilbert Murdock
And the Winner of this match is…… NO CRYSTAL STAIR
I knew it! I knew it! The Newbery curse strikes again! For newbies, let me bring you up to speed: The Newbery Medal winner has never made it out of the first round of BOB. These were two of my favorite books of the year, and I would have been pleased to see either one advance. To Catherine’s list of similarities, I would add that both books are written in very discrete bits of text—something more than a poem, but less than a chapter, maybe a vignette. Both books also appealed to me equally on an intellectual level and on an emotional one. As much as I like THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, I probably would have also picked NO CRYSTAL STAIR to advance—and I would reluctantly pick it to beat SERAPHINA in the next round, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
– Commentator Jonathan Hunt
Unlike Ms. Murdock, I wouldn’t call Ivan’s story precious. I can see where it’s coming from – the idea of Ivan, a gorilla, as a happy hero – but the book as a whole is not so happy, though hopeful. Rather, I think it is another one of those “magical” books. There is a muddled feeling throughout the book, where, true, Ivan’s happiness and optimism is the predominant feeling, yet mixed with a sort of wistful loss, or the other way around. In order to achieve this quality, Applegate writes in a poetic form, lending The One and Only Ivan a sense of lyricism and complexity. The universality of the story and its animal protagonists will excite younger readers, while the evocative words will enthrall any who appreciate literature. Added to this already excellent start is the intricate relationship between humans and animals. Like in Endangered, Moonbird, Temple Grandin, and even Seraphina, this wonderful book makes us think about what it means to live on this world.
(And that’s a growing theme in literature, as with climate change, an increase in natural awareness, and ever-growing technology, writers face the metamorphosis of the world by looking at animals and Earth.)
No Crystal Stair, on the other hand, addresses a human struggle. It shows how Lewis Michaux overcame prejudice. It does this all with an excellent grounding in history and humanity, showing Michaux’s story from different perspectives. The voices are unique and believable; the tale is extraordinary. And while I can see how Michaux’s importance may be exaggerated, Micheaux Nelson also emphasizes the causes which drove him in his actions: literacy, freedom, racism. All this combined makes a simply fascinating read.
But I’d give the win to Ivan – its Newbery is well deserved.
– Kid Commentator RGN