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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

No Crystal Stair

WHAT IS A DOCUMENTARY NOVEL, ANYWAY?

I’m only familiar with two children’s novels billed as such.  Avi’s NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, an older Newbery Honor book, is told in completely fictional documents.  No resemblance there.  Deborah Wiles’s more recent book, COUNTDOWN, however, liberally uses period photographs and quotes to document the 60s setting of the book, and this book follows that lead.

nelson 212x300 No Crystal StairThus, the fictional narrative of NO CRYSTAL STAIR is complemented by photographs, documents, and illustrations.  Furthermore, the back matter (which includes a four-page bibliography and seven pages of source notes) are conventions of nonfiction.  Nevertheless, Nelson’s Lewis Michaux is a fictional creation, no matter how closely he resembles the genuine article.  Ditto for Ryan’s Neftali Reyes in THE DREAMER, Gantos’s Jack Gantos in DEAD END IN NORVELT, and Obed’s memoir-like TWELVE KINDS OF ICE (sure to be discussed later this year).  It’s all just further evidence of the increasing hybridization of fiction and nonfiction.

DOES IT REALLY READ LIKE NONFICTION, THOUGH?

Despite the liberal presence of all that research, the book does not read like nonfiction.  In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to YOUR OWN, SYLVIA, a Printz Honor book.  The difference here is that the myriad viewpoints are not written in poems, but rather vignettes–or monologues, as I like to think of them (because these characters address the reader directly).

When readers state that this book keeps them at a distance, I suspect the real problem is twofold: (a) the narrative switches viewpoints every page or two so the reader doesn’t spend long stretches of time with first-person or third-person narrators, and (b) because these viewpoints are presentational, that is, they break the fourth wall and acknowledge the audience, the reader does not get to eavesdrop on their most private thoughts and emotions like they would with a first- or third-person narrator.  We had a discussion about THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN regarding the difference between Ivan’s external and internal voices.  We won’t be having a similar conversation about this book because there are only external voices.  This makes it difficult for some readers to bond with the character, but that is a flaw in the reader, not the book.

If you shift your paradigm, however, and think of these bits of text as something closer to GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! than to IVAN, WONDER, or MALONE, then you can begin to appreciate this book for what it is rather than for what it is not.  The narrative voices are lively; they may not necessarily be as distinct on the page, but I found that in performance, so to speak, my mind animated and differentiated each part with distinct character voices.

TURNING A FAVORED CLICHE ON ITS EAR

We love to read and thus we love books that reaffirm the value of reading and literacy and the power they have to resonate through a person’s life.  Too often our pet theme is manifested in cliches.  To wit: How many times have you read about a character who, against all odds–oh, frabjuous day!–learns to read or write?  Off the top of my head quickly: CHARLOTTE’S WEB, HOLES, WHITTINGTON, BLUEFISH, ad nauseam.  If I’ve read that story once, I’ve read it dozens of times.  It’s, like, second only to the dead dog cliche.  What a breath of fresh air, then, is NO CRYSTAL STAIR with its new take on the themes of reading, literacy, and empowerment!

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

I’ve wandered all over the place with this analysis, touching on various literary elements but still not really scratching the surface of what makes this the most distinguished book of the year.  So here it is in a nutshell: NO CRYSTAL STAIR is a seamless marriage of plot, character, and style that pays homage to a man and his life by placing him squarely in the context of his times.  In the process it contributes to an emerging form and reinvigorates hackneyed themes, elevating both to new heights that touch the soul and light the mind on fire.

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. But I found the narrative jumpy and fragmented, thought the structure seemed designed to keep the reader at an emotional remove, and found myself wondering what I had learned as historical fact and what had been given the patina of fiction.

    I’m also the only person I’ve talked to or heard from that feels like this, so it’s probably just me, and I don’t trust my opinions on it. But I would have preferred a more novelistic novel or a more biographical biography.

  2. Hear! Hear! What a fantastic analysis of a fantastic book! While some (Sam, perhaps:) find the narrative jumpy I had just the opposite experience. Taste may play into it, but I adore works with multiple narrators, multiple forms, and multiple everythings. And, in my experience, kids do too so that I see the child appeal (older children, 12-14, in this case) as great here. Intriguing since most of the characters are not children. That question has come up before (if not here I’ve seen it floating around) — the idea of adults being central to a narrative. Not simply as agents versus the children in the story, but as the main characters in the story. Nelson managed this adroitly I thought by having that young teen (can’t recall his name and haven’t the book on hand) moving his way through the story and being so inspired by Lewis.

  3. Alys says:

    It’s already been ably covered about what the book did well. Let’s talk about what we had problems with since that’s a more interesting discussion than lots of agreement about being distinguished in style or setting.

    My greatest problem with this book was that (in my own opinion, in my own reading) I did not feel that the character’s voices were very distinct. I liked the presentational only-outside-voices feel to the narrative, but I had to constantly glance up to see who was speaking. There were none of the mannerisms and odd speech tics that I expect in what is essentially a continuous dialogue. The characters come from vastly different backgrounds (inner city New York, rural Virginia, the 1920′s, the 1960′s) and yet I never felt that that was reflected in the way they spoke. Their attitudes were different, but not so different that I could always figure out who was talking. If one of the monologues is talking about Lewis finding the Lord, I could guess it’s one of a handful of characters, but the voices are similar enough not to be able to tell right away if it’s Mary or Willie or Lightfoot. Maybe this is a result of sticking very closely to written records and semi-formal interviews given years later? I know I write very differently than I speak, and a lot of regional rhythms and word choices have flattened out in the last fifty years. Lewis’s voice is the only one that was distinct enough that it was always clear he was talking.

    I found it somewhat ironic that this very intellectual book (the notes! the bibliography! oh, raptures!) has such an anti-intellectual protagonist.

    So, for me, I found the characterization to be less than exquisitely distinguished. But I agree that the setting, style, presentation of themes, and pacing are all at the top of the distinguished list.

  4. Wendy says:

    I read this book several months ago–it was one of the first of this year’s crop that I read–and don’t remember the specifics well, though the theme, the protagonist, and the ideals have stayed with me. I didn’t even remember that it was told through multiple viewpoints until I read the comments here and thought about it hard. In my goodreads review, the only criticism I note is that I thought it should have been clearer that the “news articles” are fictional, written by the author, since a lot of the documentary material is authentic. I also compliment a simple and straightforward style. The setting is definitely well-realized, in both time and place–especially mid-century New York.

    I am a little puzzled by Michaux being categorized as “anti-intellectual”, but as I say, it’s been awhile since I read it.

    I do think this book “reads like non-fiction” inasmuch as “non-fiction” is not just one thing or one style of writing. Actually, I think the category is so broad as to render the comment meaningless, except that (as was addressed before) I object to it being used as an insult. I don’t really think there’s an “increasing hybridization” of non-fiction and fiction, either; I think there’s just more of an impetus to call it like it is, currently. Fifty years ago this book would have been shelved with the biographies along all the other supposedly non-fiction biographies for children, many of which were fictionalized, several of which were pretty much straight-up invention.

    I’d like to talk some about “presentation for a child audience”–since I think this book is near impeccable (though I look forward to more criticisms), I think that’s going to be the hangup for many readers. Personally, I think this is a book that will probably have a hard time finding its readers and might do best if assigned in the classroom, but once a reader is committed, that simple style and the engaging shift of characters noted above will keep them around.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sam: Generally speaking, how do you respond to similar books with mutliple narrators? Or, if we are pretending to be around the table, I might ask whether you had a similar emotional response to, say, TITANIC: VOICES FROM A DISASTER? What I’m driving at is evidence that the problem is rooted in the book, rather than simply a personal taste issue. If you could point to several books from this year that were similarly fragmented and articulate why they worked for you while this one didn’t, then it would be more convincing. Of course, if may simply be a taste issue. I’ve got one like that that’s coming up for discussion next . . .

    As for figuring out what was fact and what was fiction, I just surrendered to the experience of reading the book and didn’t really worry about that–just as I didn’t try to figure out how much of DEAD END IN NORVELT was factual and fictional.

    Alys: You’ve hit on the one thing about the book that I do think is legitimate–and I had the same concern with YOUR OWN, SYLVIA. The characterization and character development of Lewis Michaux and Sylvia Plath are excellent. We would normally expect secondary characters to exemplify these qualities, too. I am willing to forgive a weaker character development in secondary characters because the focus is so heavily placed on the subject, but I do think lack of distinct characterization for each voice is a legitimate criticism. I’d need to reread it to see how much of a problem this is.

    With a book of monologues like GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! we expect that actors will bring a performance aspect that will further differentiate the voices. I certainly hear different voices in my head when I’m reading it, but I’m probably embellishing the reading experience. Is there an audiobook of NO CRYSTAL STAIR?

    Wendy: To expand on my hybridization comment, I do agree with you about the fictionalized nonfiction; it’s been around forver. What I think is much newer, however, is nonfictionalized fiction that goes above and beyond DEAR AMERICA and other fake memoir/journal things . . . but that’s just a hunch.

  6. Alys says:

    @Wendy. You’re right that I needed to frame my “anti-intellectual” comment, as obviously the entire book is about Lewis trying to get people to read! What I meant was that he several times makes comments about formally educated people being snobs or out of touch. He says of MLK JR that “but he’s so educated a common man has to carry a dictionary” and of Malcolm X “he was fortunate not to have enough education to be tamed”.

    I think it’s an interesting tension in the book. Lewis clearly wants everyone to learn, learn, learn. But he’s also deeply suspicious of institutional education and the attitudes of its graduates.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mark Twain had a similar sentiment: I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

  8. I think Michaux’s attitude to formal education is summed up nicely in the epigraph, “They call me the Professor and I say ‘You’re right. I professed to do something and I did it.’”

  9. Mark Flowers says:

    A lot to chew on here. I agree with Wendy that I was personally confused about whether the newspaper clippings and FBI reports were real or fictionalized, but I have to recognize that as my own personal failing. First, the answers to the question are in the back matter. Second (and this answers Sam’s question about “what I had learned as historical fact and what had been given the patina of fiction”) the book says on the front that it is a novel, so we as readers have to take it as a novel, a work of fiction. In just the same way that a Hollywood film about a real person might mix truth and fiction, we just have to accept that to learn the “real” truth we’re going to have to go real some real nonfiction. The film, and this novel, are not here to give us the facts, but to present us with a compelling story, which I think NO CRYSTAL STAIR gives us in spades.

    I do agree with the complaint that the side characters were less well realized. There were slight differences, but not pronounced enough to make them really live on the page. Personally, I didn’t find this to be a huge problem, because the book was SO centered on Lewis himself.

    “Presentation for a child audience” – well, I agree that it isn’t likely to be very popular (but then, not too many Newbery winners are!), but I certainly think any 12-14 year old who has learned about the Civil Rights Movement (which is pretty much all of them at this point) should have the ability to understand most everything that goes on in this novel.

  10. Sondy says:

    Sam, count me as one person who felt as you did about the book. So now I’m trying to answer some of Jonathan’s questions. Yes, it’s true that I don’t tend to like books with multiple narrators. Karen Hesse’s Witness and Sid Fleischman’s Bull Run come to mind as books I thought were good but left me a little cold. However, come to think of it (since you asked), I was really taken with Titanic: Voices from the Disaster. Of course, this is not told JUST in the voices of the characters, but has plenty of narrative tying them together. (And I rolled my eyes at the thought of reading a Titanic book, but was pleasantly surprised.)

    Alys may have spotted the main problem here. They did all sound alike. I also thought there was a lot more telling than showing. Large spans of years are covered, and not too often do we see a specific scene. In fact, where specific scenes are given, those are the best parts. Michaux talking about getting caught stealing one specific time is more powerful than Lightfoot moaning about how his brother is leading a wild life. These characters are more interesting when they talk about specific incidents.

    Even though the big setting of Harlem and its intellectual environment is communicated well, the small settings of individual monologues is often left quite vague. We do see pictures of the bookstore, and perhaps that’s the most important part. This may be inherent in a broad sweeping narrative of the man’s life. They’re covering lots of years and there wasn’t much of a plot arc for many of those years.

    Does that make any sense?

    Jonathan’s idea of thinking of it as a dramatic performance does help. I think that would be quite moving. Even giving different vocal inflections to the characters would help them not blend together quite so much. But that also is talking about what you’d like it to be, not what it is, right?

    I liked Alys’s comment. Yes, this book did many things well. Yes, it’s a distinguished book. But why, in the end, do I find it isn’t sticking with me? Is that a flaw in me or a flaw with the book? (Mind you, if I were actually on the committee, I’d definitely give it more readings.) Talking about the flaws is definitely interesting — while never trying to say that the book isn’t brilliant. But MOST distinguished? And for children? I’m not so sure.

  11. Brandy says:

    As far as “documentary novels” go, this one played in my head like a documentary where none other ever has. It flowed from one segment to another well and I was held by the story. Maybe that is why I didn’t have any trouble distinguishing each person’s section. I always knew who was speaking although now that it’s pointed out I can see how the lack of differentiation in voice is indeed it a flaw. I find it is one that is far outweighed by the strengths in theme, style, plot, and the development of the main character.

    @Sondy: I think it certainly fits in the specified age range for the Newbery. My library does have it shelved in the Teen section (for what that’s worth-they also have Okay for Now shelved in the Teen section). As for it being the most distinguished, I certainly thinks it has a shot at it for all of the reasons Jonathan stated. It is one of my top picks at this point, and of the four books thus far it is my favorite.

  12. Eric says:

    I’ll preface this by saying that I really enjoyed NO CRYSTAL STAIR and think it’s one of the most distinguished books of the year.
    I have some questions about Wendy’s comment about fictionalized biographies. Why so disparaging? Why not call NCS a welcome addition to a beloved, yet recently neglected, genre of nonfiction

    I was really surprised when the Horn Book Award for FICTION went to this title. How is this not nonfiction? I know that it calls itself a novel but since when do we place so much importance in what something calls itself? Some of my favorite newbery winners are nonfiction biographies like CARRY ON MR. BOWDITCH (favorite winner of the 50s) and INVINCIBLE LOUISA (favorite winner of the 30s). I get the feeling from some of the comments above that these are examples of this so called “Fictionalized nonfiction” which seems like a derogatory term.
    ASIDE: It reminds me of the documentary film purists of the 1970s and beyond who reevaluated and diminished the work of Robert Flaherty because he stage all the events of his documentaries (such as Nanook of the North). These purist were reevaluating these early works through the lens of cinema-verite and through this prism redefined what a documentary was allowed to be.
    Are we doing the same thing here? Why can’t NCS be a great nonfiction book from which readers can glean lots of information about an important individual in modern American history?

    I did have a couple issues with the book itself, first off I thought the author should have clearly stated her relationship with Oscar. I read the back copy and the notes multiple times trying to place her in the family tree. If you’re going to include an actual family tree in a book and you are part of the family, shouldn’t you appear somewhere on the tree? This really bugged me.
    Also I’d echo what has already been said about the indistinct voices which seems to be a trend this year(looking at you WONDER). Hopefully committee members can point to CODE NAME VERITY as an example of distinguished use of multiple narrators. Can the committee discuss CNV during their meetings even if they’ve already discounted it for age reasons?

  13. Mark Flowers says:

    @Eric – I think the most important issue is that practically all of the text of the book is supposedly coming from the voices of particular people, and (as far as I can tell) none of those words actually came from those people, they were invented by Nelson.

    Add to that the fact that Nelson has invented characters, compressed events, and made other choices, and I think my comparison, above, to a bio-pic is much more apt than to Nanook of the North. I share your feelings about Nanook, but no one doubts that the actual human being Nanook (or whatever his real name was) actually did those things, regardless of whether Flaherty asked him to. In the case of NCS, Nelson has put words into the mouths of both real and imaginary characters. That’s a novel.

    I take Wendy’s comment to be about those old biographies you used to read in which the author shows people saying and doings things that there is no way of knowing whether they were done or said. Whether or not that was a good practice at the time those “nonfiction” books were written, it is completely unacceptable scholarship today.

  14. Wendy says:

    Fictionalized nonfiction is in no way a derogatory term. I am somewhat scathing when talking about about midcentury children’s biographies because they present fact where there is no fact. As stories, many of them are great–I loved them as a kid and love some of them now. As biographies, they’re dreadful. They set a poor standard for nonfiction at best, and at worst–well, you’ve read AMOS FORTUNE, FREE MAN? A nasty, racist, fabricated story masquerading as the true story of a happy slave. NANOOK OF THE NORTH, too–if I may follow the tangent–claimed to be what it is not, and that is what is object to. Any work of nonfiction, whether book or film, is to some extent going to reflect the biases of the author; some try to mitigate this more than others (and I have no objection to those who let their biases fly, as long as that bias is apparent and acknowledged; I don’t think complete objectivity has to be the goal in every work of nonfiction). But fiction passing itself off as fact, I can’t support. (Beloved but recently neglected? Not by a long shot–seen the error of our ways, more like it.)

    And I assume that’s at least part of what Nelson and her editor were trying to accomplish when they chose to write and publish this as a novel instead of as straight-up biography. Some of it is, of necessity, invention and conjecture. That doesn’t diminish it in my eyes. I have learned an enormous amount throughout my life from historical fiction, which sometimes stays close to its source material and sometimes takes a wide berth.

    As for why Nelson didn’t include herself in the family tree–as I remember, her branch of the family just didn’t make it in, right? I assumed that she didn’t want to overstate her own personal knowledge of the protagonist or insert herself in the story. It didn’t matter to me that she didn’t state her relationship in the beginning.

    I agree that most 12-14-year-olds should be able to understand the events here, but I think somehow that this book goes beyond being simply understandable. Many or at least most adult books are understandable by 14-year-olds (which speaks to my old beef about the criterion being interpreted so broadly as to be meaningless), but there’s something about this one that makes me feel fairly strongly that it IS a book for older kids; it would feel out of place in the adult section. (Unlike, say, Code Name Verity, which I think is a fine YA book but could be published simultaneously as an adult novel, and I wouldn’t blink an eye.) I just don’t know what it is.

  15. Alys says:

    I think she did include herself in the family tree. The leaf farthest to the left on the topmost branch belongs to Vaunda Lee (Nelson). That leaf belongs to the child of Norris Jr., who was Norris’s son, and Norris was Lewis’s brother. That makes Vaunda Lee the great-neice of Lewis, which is the relationship of the Vaunda who wrote the book, and whose married name is Nelson.

  16. Sondy says:

    Talking heads. Disembodied voices. That’s what the book feels like to me. Now, mind you, I’m writing this from memory, without a copy of the book in front of me. So maybe there are more scenes set than what I remember. But I think the reason I made the throwaway comment about it reading like nonfiction (which I greatly regret — though at least it sparked off some passionate discussion!) is probably because when I read nonfiction, I’m perfectly happy with whole chapters I can’t visualize, that are strictly on the concept level. But when I read a novel, I like to visualize what’s going on and who’s speaking.

    A lot of this book was hard to visualize. If this book were filmed as it’s written, a lot of the characters would just be talking heads. Maybe you could put a bookstore backdrop, but what action would you film? This is why I don’t think setting is a strong point. There are good sections about the bookstore, but a lot of the speeches could be given anywhere, as if they’re just taking place in the ether somewhere.

    I don’t think I necessarily have a problem with multiple narrators. In Wonder the only weak point about multiple narrators is that she waited 80 pages to bring in the second voice. In Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, it’s done beautifully. But there’s no problem in either of those books about wondering what to visualize. The characters are talking about specific scenes, not general opinions.

    I should probably stop commenting without the book in front of me, because I’m sure there were passages that were specific, that did set the scene. In general, I’m remembering it as people’s thoughts about Lewis more than their specific memories of scenes with him. More telling than showing.

  17. Nina says:

    I’m waiting to get my hands back on a copy so I can respond properly to the idea that the voices are disjointed. I didn’t get that at all…I got wonderful collage, almost a journalistic feel as the author–who was always clearly present for me–tried to assemble some truth from what she had. I don’t like to worry too much about the genre label for this one; it’s not being fair to the book. She’s telling us a true story, and that’s how I approached it, so I didn’t need to voices to be the same as they would be in fiction. She gave us all the context we needed to trust her, and we understand (because she shows us) what is “documentary” and what is educated conjencture.

  18. mslibrarian says:

    I am not sure, even after reading the back matters diligently, that we really know which parts are truly “documentary” and which parts are fictionalized. There are pages designed to look as if they are primary sourced cited as evidences to support the fictional parts, and yet, the readers are told somehow those “documents” are also composites of other, hidden primary sources. I did understand the “novel” label but since there are so many real people (Malcolm X, MLK, and of course Micheaux siblings, etc.) with real deeds and real interactions with Micheaux, I was surprised to find out that the one “character” most illustrating MIcheaux’ influences on his customers and his community was a totally fictitious concoction: the boy who grew up to be a doctor. I wanted that to be REAL, I wanted that to be key EVIDENCE of the power of the man and the establishment — (and I know other readers who reacted the same way and cited this “character” as the most powerful in the whole book) — so, finding out that what moved me MOST was something that NEVER actually happened definitely was a let-down.

    Of course, I also tell myself that there must have been one or even more than one young person who was educated and “bettered” because of the man and the bookstore, they were just not documented because they were the voiceless in history. And now Nelson gave them this voice. Like Jonathan said, some of these voices are like those in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! And I kind of made peace with that original disappointment.

    One last note: I thought that the beginning sequences of Micheaux as a young person roots the book squarely in the “children’s book” world and I don’t see why young people wouldn’t find this a fascinating and powerful tale.

  19. Wendy says:

    I had pretty much the same reading experience, mslibrarian. I had to get over the idea that Nelson somehow OWED me that boy.

    Nina, I’m curious about your statement that the author “was always clearly present for me”. Obviously you don’t mean that as a criticism, but I see, looking at my original review, the absence of a strong authorial presence impressed me originally as well as when I wrote above. How do you feel her presence in the book, and what context did you feel was given so the reader could “trust” her? I would agree, again, with mslibrarian, that I didn’t leave with a very strong sense of what was absolutely factual and what wasn’t (even once I understood that the news articles were not artifacts, as noted above). This doesn’t bother Mark, but I’ve thought about his comments about considering that his own failure; personally, I’m stil skeptical and this is really the only (mild) criticism I can make of the book.

  20. DaNae says:

    Setting – yes! Yes! Yes!

    Presentation of Theme – you betcha!

    Delineation of character – Yes, and No. Mainly Lewis.

    Now, Presentation for a child audience: my legitimate issue here is that some of the historical context relied on the reader’s previous knowledge. Especially when it came to the real people who showed up. Malcolm X wanders in, and I am very impressed. Then I realize there is no explanation of who this impressive person is. In a non-fiction book there would be a sidebar or other device to delve deeper into the supporting content. I’m not sure if it detracts from the impact of the book but I felt the same way last year when I read BREAKING STALIN’S NOSE. I couldn’t understand what young reader would have an adequate understanding of Stalin’s Soviet Union to appreciate that story.

    And Alys, thank you for point out Vaunda’s place in the Family Tree. I kept yelling at the comments that she was right there, if only they’d look

    Also I adore multiple narratives (let’s talk SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS ALREADY) but I agree with Sondy the explanatory nature of the monologues kept me from feeling as engaged if I would have if the story unfolded in real time.

  21. Nina says:

    Wendy, again it’s hard w/o my copy, but I came to the book expecting to hear history, more than story. (I’m trying to avoid the “f” and “nf” words cause I don’t think that’s what’s going on). Because there was backmatter, I did browse that first, and so it seemed clear from the way the book was put together that there was going to be a combo of directly quoted material, and conjectured. So I did feel the author “leading” me to a history with whatever tools she could assemble, and I appreciated that.

  22. I’m late coming back to this discussion, as I’ve been out of the office, but to answer your question, Jonathan, I tend to prefer as a matter of taste a unified narrative voice to multiple narrators. TITANIC ended up on Rachael’s desk rather than mine, but I was never a huge fan of, for instance, GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!, which I also thought had a hard time remaining focused.

    I did, however, enjoy HOPE AND TEARS: ELLIS ISLAND VOICES, so I guess I’m not incapable of appreciating the style. I think my problem with NO CRYSTAL STAIR involves the attempt to use the fragments to tell a narrative. HOPE AND TEARS presents each narrative section as a moment, an isolated piece of one person’s story, so that one ends up with a sort of mosaic. In NO CRYSTAL STAIR, I made a note that Michaux at one point is selling books from a cart, threatened with complete failure, and then a few pages later he and his bookstore are doing well, with precious little explanation of what happened in the interim. Those kind of gaps were intensely frustrating to me as a reader, and I felt like the brevity of the sections and frequency of the narrative transitions exacerbated the problem.

    But again, I’m not super-confident in my assessment here. I find this a terribly hard book for me personally to evaluate.

  23. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I, too, have been out of town for the past several days . . .

    1. There 36 different voices in this book. I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect all of them to be differentiated, but we would certainly expect more than a handful (looking right at you, R.J. Palacio). With this many voices, at some point, the reader just has to collude with the author, taking the cues from the chapter headings, reading the subtly impressionistic differences, and “hearing” the voices.

    2. I would stop short of calling these monologues. I think some of the vignettes can be used in that way. (Take note, budding thespians!) However, I will say that the only thing that sets GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! apart in this respect is that the CIP data describes the book as monologues. But as far as the look of the text on the pages of the book? Not so very different. NO CRYSTAL STAIR is prose; GOOD MASTERS! is poetry. I don’t want to belabor this point. It’s just an observation.

    3. Nina and I had the opportunity to chat via e-mail with BG-HB chair Thom Barthelmess about NO CRYSTAL STAIR, among other things. His comments are illuminating, and I would like to revisit this discussion once we post those remarks. In short, this is a book that makes big demands of its readers because it really doesn’t fit very neatly into any one box; there’s no road map for how to read–or evaluate–a book like this. That’s going to make it challenging to build consensus around, but I think it’s a worthy endeavor for the committee and I hope they find it just as distinguished as I do.

  24. Jonathan Hunt says:

    While we don’t need to decide if NO CRYSTAL STAIR is fiction or nonfiction–or, more precisely, *which* parts are fiction and nonfiction–in order to find it the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, we still struggle to evaluate this one because it doesn’t fit neatly into either box.

    However, I *do* think there is a precedent for this kind of book, although none that are published this year: CARVER by Marilyn Nelson (2001); THE POET SLAVE OF CUBA (2006) and THE SURRENDER TREE (2008) both by Margarita Engle; CESAR (2006), FRIDA (2007), and DIEGO (2009) all by Carmen Bernier-Grand; and YOUR OWN, SYLVIA (2007) and WICKED GIRLS (2010) both by Stephanie Hemphill.

    As I mentioned previously, these all differ from NO CRYSTAL STAIR in that they are poetry collections or verse novels, but they are the same in these respects: (a) they do not offer a comprehensive biography (or history), but rather an impressionistic one, that is, they are brief vignettes on a timeline (and often dates are included with each “chapter” to help readers navigate the jumps in time), (b) additionally, there are multiple narrators with a presentational monologue–again, often identified with each “chapter” for easy reference, and (c) most of these books have supplementary material (illustrations, photographs, bibliographies, and notes) to help readers learn more about their subjects.

    For me, NO CRYSTAL STAIR is still a work of fiction because the prose has been fictionalized or recreated, despite the presence of so much clear documentation. Many authors of fiction do a voluminous amount of research, hewing as close as possible to the factual record, but this alone cannot make the book nonfiction for me. But fiction can be true–even if it is not factual–and I would not hesitate to say there is a great degree of truth in this book. Or in NEVER FALL DOWN or any number of other fiction books published this year.

    Last year, Nina, I, and possibly some other readers of this blog, attended the USBBY regional conference where Pam Munoz Ryan spoke about her journey in writing THE DREAMER, about how she initially conceptualized it as a biography, but how it gradually evolved into its present form. I wish I could remember exactly what she said, but I think much of it was germane to this discussion.

  25. Destinee says:

    This is a distinguished book, no doubt. My main concern, though, is the same as DaNae’s, namely “presentation for a child audience.” It seems to me the ideal reader for this book has considerable knowledge of the history of race relations in the United States. So my question is: will children come to this book with the historical context necessary to understand it?

    I’d like to compare NCS to WE’VE GOT A JOB, which does an excellent job presenting its story for a child audience. Many historical details were explained with clarity and grace by the author, always honoring a child’s perspective. NCS, on the other hand, seems to take for granted that the reader knows who Marcus Garvey and Malcom X were, and what the black nationalist movement was and why the FBI would track its members’ activities.

    As I said, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a truly distinguished book, but my concern with “excellence of presentation for a child audience” is keeping NCS off my list. I can’t imagine booktalking it at an elementary school.

  26. Destinee, I wouldn’t book talk it at an elementary school either. However the award is for children through age 14 so do you think it isn’t accessible to an almost-15 year-old? I do.

  27. DaNae says:

    I know this isn’t a hard and fast fact, but I loved Roxanne Feldman’s recent comments on the age thing:

    http://fairrosa.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/the-age-old-conundrum-of-newbery-ages-fairrosas-solution/

    “If a YA book can be appreciated greatly by 14-year-olds and that they won’t feel “embarrassed to be caught reading a babyish book,” but I also have no problem recommending it to 11 or 12 year old readers because I believe that the themes, the presentations, the events, etc. in the book can be grasped without additional life or literary experiences by those younger readers, then, I will embrace whole-heartedly and believe such title falling quite squarely within the terms of the Newbery manual.

    On the other hand, if a YA book can be appreciated greatly by 14-year-olds and they feel that they are stretching their experiences, literary abilities, or even a bit on the “risque” side while reading this book, and I find that I keep recommending it to my 16- or 17-year old high school readers because they really would GET the book much better, then, I would consider such title NOT eligible for consideration for the Newbery.”

    I do think NCS stretches the understanding of most 11 to 13 year-olds.

  28. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Danae, Roxanne’s line of reasoning may be very appealing to you, but it contradicts the further clarification on this issue given on page 78 of the Newbery manual–

    In some instances, award-winning books have been criticized for exceeding the upper age limit of fourteen.

    If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible.

    Questions for committees to consider include these:

    * Is there any 14-year-old for whom this book is suitable?
    * If so, is it distinguished enough to be considered?
    * If so, exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why?

    A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee feels that (a) it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book; (b) it is so distinguished, in so many ways, that it deserves recognition for the excellence it provides to a small but unique readership; (c) it is exceptionally fine for the narrow part of the range to which it appeals, even though it may be eligible for other awards outside this range.

    Since the manual talks about books for only ages 13 and 14, I categorically reject any argument about ages 11 and 12 or 16 and 17. Moreover, the last paragraph suggests that the book can actually have a greater audience among ages 15 and up, that is, that it may be seen as a better fit for the Printz Award. The committee may be unable to come to consenus around these upper-limit titles, but I simply do not see how the criteria can be used to justify dismissing them without seriously considering (a) how they match up to the criteria and (b) the additional questions cited above.

  29. Nina Lindsay says:

    See, I read Roxanne’s line of reasoning as pretty close to the interpretation, but not as an argument for Danae and Destinee on NCS. Roxanne is asking questions like the interpretations ask us to…specifically “If so, exactly what 14 year olds would respond to it and why?” The interpretation do then challenge us to be even a little broader in our determination than Roxanne was in that statement…but in the full context of her post she does open her reasoning for question.

    Meanwhile, I’ve yet to see an argument that suggests that NCS shouldn’t be considered for the Newbery. Danae, “I do think NCS stretches the understanding of most 11 to 13 year-olds” doesn’t make a difference, because a book can be for a narrow part of a readership up to and including age 14. (Also, I disagree with you. Plenty of 11 to 13 year olds in Oakland know exactly enough about what is going on in this book that this is the perfect challenging read for them.) Destinee, why shouldsn’t we take for granted that children know who Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X are? Are our history books really still so stullified that we can assume kids only know about Washington and Lincoln? We have schools and other landmarks named for both of these men here, and I’m hoping elsewhere in the country too.

  30. DaNae says:

    Her argument IS very appealing to me, and I suspected her logic would not be the law of the land. But as a librarian of a school with an upper age of 12 I want to go on record as wishing Roxanne could set the policy.

    I’ve actually defended the 14 age limited with a few people who would like to see it dropped to 12. I find that many books that fit into that 12 to 14 range don’t get noticed by either Printz or Newbery (AKA A MONSTER CALLS, BETWEEN THE SHADES OF GRAY). But with the books I’m thinking of emotional content moves them up rather than contextual understanding.

  31. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The problem with Roxanne’s proposition (as she well knows–because she stated it in her post) is that she first has to convince the other fourteen people on the committeee to adopt her general guideline (which, to my mind, is still unsubstantiated in the criteria), but then she has to further convince them to interpret the guideline properly relative to each book). For example, the book that strikes me as the most high-end Newbery actually comes from her previous stint on the committee: CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS. To my mind, this is a perfect example of a book that is best appreciated by ages 16 and 17, but which can certainly stretch the minds of ages 13 and 14. So even if she convinces me to adopt her position, we still may disagree on how to interpret it relative to each book.

    That’s why I think we are best served rooting our arguments in the six criteria of plot, character, setting, theme, style, and information. Arguing about the design or the age of the audience or whether it stands alone or whether it’s boring–none of these are very convincing reasons for moving away from a book that you feel deep in your bones is the most distinguished. If that’s your best argument then you’re really just placing yourself at mercy of the committee, hoping that the majority of them agree with you.

  32. fairrosa says:

    It’s so much fun reading others picking apart my musings and propelling me to think further. Jonathan, I agree with you on many fronts: especially the point that there is no way for me to actually convince others how they might or might not interpret a book’s “age appropriateness” the same way as I do. I, do, however, stand firm on how I personally interpret the “age range” for myself. There are books that I deeply admire and are perhaps my personal favorites that I probably will not suggest or nominate because, using my own measuring methods, these titles are beyond the range, for me.

    I am drafting another blog post considering the unique challenges and skills demanded from an author who writes specifically for the younger readers. I believe that Newbery was set up to and should still aim to honor those special authors who successfully entice child readers everywhere. If the age range and the successful presentation for a child audience are not weighed along side the SIX BIG POINTS, then how can we decide which author can be named as providing “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”?

    Jonathan, you have served also on the Committee and should know that a single Committee member’s conviction does not always change the course of the whole committee and its outcome. Whether I was one of the supporters or one of the dissenters — or whether I have changed my mind in the last decade really has no bearing to what I am or we are discussing here and now. And although I wanted to respond to the choice of Carver, I really cannot publicly do so – so that is kind of unfair of you to bring that up here. *tsk tsk tsk*

  33. Alys says:

    I know there was a post last year about age range, but I would love to see another one this year focusing just on that topic, since it is obviously still a part of the criteria (since one of the criteria is that it be a children’s book) that many people struggle with.

    For instance: What is your response to the complaint that Roxane mentions many people have, that theoretically the wording could be interpreted to mean that every book published “for teens” could be considered because there will always be some 14 year olds who will read and appreciate it? There has to be some sort of guideline or the committee members would have to read all of the year’s young adult books too, essentially doubling their already significant reading requirements. I’d also love to see more of your thoughts on evaluating books for very young readers only looking at the text.

  34. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Roxanne: If you are not comfortable talking about CARVER then I will talk about CRISS CROSS. While I had 5th and 6th grade readers for CRISS CROSS (and know of their continued existence) I really think they are freaks of nature and that the lower end of the audience probably begins closer to 8th grade. I personally think the Newbery canon would be poorer for the exclusion of books like CRISS CROSS and CARVER. For every one of these that does get recognized there are probably a dozen ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARYs, excellent books that would be embraced by 8th and 9th graders if they had been recognized, but that would haven given gatekeepers apopletic fits. That said, I feel equally strongly that books for very young children should also be represented.

    I, too, believe that every member should wrestle with the age issue and come to their own understanding. I just want outsiders to know that the committee often never reaches consensus on a general guiding principle. Rather, they have to discuss each book individually, and even then they never resolve whether a book is too old. It’s not like you go around the table and vote on whether a book is too old, do you?

    Alys: If I scrapped the Newbery criteria and told the committee that the book is still for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, but that they’re going to have to work all that other stuff out, do you think that would make it any easier for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS or CODE NAME VERITY to win the Newbery? I don’t think so. Consensus among fifteen people has a way of discouraging an anything goes mentality with regard to the upper limit. The committee shouldn’t feel obligated to read all of the young adult books–or even all of the children’s books. They *should* feel obligated to read all of the distinguished books within their entire age range. That’s a much smaller charge than reading everything.

  35. fairrosa says:

    Jonathan, actually, (ok, I am going to address Carver) I would put both Carver and Criss Cross on the “I will not have any problem recommending them to my 6th graders, although they are absolutely great reads for 8th graders” range. And I don’t see either one as “most suited for 16-year-old readers.” So, to me, their places on the Newbery stage make complete sense. I cannot agree with you more that the Newbery history is enriched by a wider range of literary works so that the message to the publishers and authors is, “Do what you are passionate about and good at, and don’t think about WHAT might win the Newbery” because anything, as long as they are distinguished in some way, can win the Newbery. Hey, truth be told, what I want most from any year’s final choices has always been, “Give us a variety of books: for younger, for older, poetry, nonfiction, picture books — just go for it!!!”

    So, I cannot be more proud for our 2002 list with one historical fiction for middle grade, another realistic fiction with quite a bit of quirky humor for middle grade, and then a verse biography for the older readers. If we had decided to put more honor titles, I assure you, it would have been even more diverse as a whole list. But, I have no idea what January 2013 might bring. After reading and re-reading, thinking and re-thinking — all 15 of us, who don’t know each other that well and who have to come to consensus for something as subjective and as personal as reading and reacting to what we read. There is also each of our personal backgrounds to bring to the table: some of us are professors of children’s literature who do not work directly with kids, some of us are school librarians for particular age groups, and others are public librarians working with a wider range of kids or teens. Now you are making me really excited and very scared about that last week in January :)

  36. Alys says:

    Jonathan, at no point did I suggest scrapping the Newbery criteria, so I’m not sure where you are getting that. I’m sorry if I offended you somehow, I was not attacking your ideas, I was just trying to express curiosity about the process and ask questions to help me understand what sort of conversations might come up in a real committee. Please do not think I was suggesting there is an anything-goes attitude or that there should be. You are right that with fifteen people on the table the age range is solidly younger than it could be theoretically. Can you suggest some ways that the real committee might circle around and decide which books really are “too old?” I know that most distinguished is the most important criteria, but I also note that there are no books for older teens in the canon, and I would find it surprising that there has *never* been a book aimed solidly at the 16+ but accessible to a small number of 14 year olds that wasn’t an equal of a Newbery honor or winner. (Sadly, my knowledge of distinguished YA titles is not stellar, so I can’t create an example. Replying with “My knowledge of older YA titles is vast and I can solidly state that none of them have ever equalled a Newbery winner or honor in their distinguishment” is a valid response.)

  37. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Alys – I don’t think Jonathan was suggesting that you wanted to scrap the Newbery criteria – he was using it as a reductio ad absurdum. That is, if you really went all in on letting older books in (scrapping the criteria) what would you end up with. And his answer is, pretty close to the same thing we have now. I think that’s a pretty fair assessment, given our current definition of “children.” Given an older definition of children by which it meant anyone under 18, I think the canon would look very different.

    As to your question about older titles, I won’t get into specific titles, but I in my personal opinion there is no question that there have been plenty of 16ish titles, especially in recent years, that out class Newbery winners on pure literary merit, but not necessarily in that pieces about respecting children’s understanding, being a contribution to children’s lit, etc. And I think (never having been on the committee) that’s how the committee circles around to exclude those titles.

  38. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Alys, oh, I’m not upset or offended in the least. Let’s chalk this up to one of those awkward internet exchanges where we can’t read each others nonverbal cues at all. When I responded to you earlier, I was thinking of our post with Thom Barthelmess about how the BG-HB award doesn’t really have any criteria beyond eligibility–and yet many, if not most, of the winners would fit quite comfortably in the Newbery canon. Mark says the canon would like quite different if we defined children as being up to 18, but I’m not so sure. There are not a few ALSC members who would love to see the Newbery end at 12 rather than 14, people who would even now not vote for any of these 12-14 books like CARVER and CRISS CROSS. Would they really vote for a 16-18 title, even if the criteria allowed for it? I don’t think so.

    Here’s how I might approach the situation. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, CODE NAME VERITY, and SERAPHINA all have six starred reviews–and they all have readers in the 12-14 age range. All of these books are long which is one thing that discourages me from suggesting any of them. I think the characters in CODE NAME VERITY are past high school, no? And isn’t there some foul language? I’ll pass. SERAPHINA and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS have sixteen-year-old main characters and there are quite a few of those in the canon, books like HATTIE BIG SKY and HOPE WAS HERE and SOMEWHERE IN THE DARKNESS. But again with THE FAULT IN OUR STARS we have the language and some mild sex, so I’ll pass on this one, too. SERAPHINA would be the most likely contender for me, and I might suggest it, but I don’t think it does for the 12-14 reader what THE FALSE PRINCE does for ages 9-12 so I can’t really get very serious about spending one of my nominations on it.

    Once a YA title gets suggested then it obligates the other committee members to read it. The ones that read it and find that it is (a) distinguished and (b) suitable for the age range may also suggest it. The more suggestions a book receives, the more likely the book is to get a nomination in the fall. However, some YA titles may make it onto the final nomination list with only one to two people behind it. They have a long road ahead of them to convince other committee members to get behind that book (as opposed to other titles which have broader support). You can see, then, why committee members would pick their age battles with care. Personally, I’ve only read two books in this 12-14 range that I would battle for: NO CRYSTAL STAIR and BENEATH A METH MOON.

  39. fairrosa says:

    Alys, I have to say that Jonathan’s latest comment in response to your query matches my own experiences and the current struggle quite well. See, serving on the Newbery Committee is not just about reading, analyzing, and loving the books — it is also about thinking strategically and being able to articulate your thoughts to convince your fellow committee members of the merits or flaws of those titles. Unlike Jonathan, I don’t count stars or even read all the reviews for all the books — I want to form my own opinions and I want to read and hear from my fellow committee members. Of course, discussion board like this one actually helps to clarify certain points but there are so many more titles that I have to think about than what’s going to be on Heavy Medal or other mock Newbery lists, I have to be able to form my own solid opinions on each one. That said, keeping an open mind and being willing to be persuaded by others will guarantee a better and more rewarding experience than locking down firmly on any title.

  40. Wendy says:

    Augh, what makes CODE NAME VERITY a YA book isn’t the age of the characters OR “foul language”; it’s the sophistication of presentation, the narrative path the characters take, their expressed feelings about the world. Along with some fairly heavy themes and imagery. Part of what gets me a little overly riled whenever it is mentioned as a Newbery possibility is that I feel like that’s almost disrespectful to YA. There IS a difference! And it’s more than which books have characters having sex and which characters drop f-bombs. (Which is why I also get irritated with people who say there was no YA before The Outsiders and my beloved vintage books about 1950s teenagers are younger than YA.)

    As I complained last year in the discussion of CHIME, an interpretation of “Is there any 14-year-old this book would work for?” opens up not only ALL the YA, but every adult book out there. After all, what was the first adult book that you loved, and how old were you when you read it? I bet it was younger than 14 for almost everyone here. I just don’t think it’s a useful way of looking at the question.

  41. Nina says:

    Jonathan, you’d really pass because a book is long?

    Wendy, you’re right about the logical fallacy in “Is there any 14 year old this book would work for?” …if you take it as the only measure. Remember that it’s just one question of many that you have to ask about a title. Yeah, technically, the field is wide, and I think that’s good. If a committee member finds a title that they think might be distinguished under Newbery criteria, but is questionable about the age range…then “Is there any 14 year old…” become a useful question for them to ask themselves…and then with which to construct an argument to convince the committee. They’ll have to persuade others that there is a readership of children for this book, and that it is so distinguished in comparison to others that it should be taken seriously.

  42. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, here’s take two, since my little think aloud with FAULT/CODE/SERAPHINA didn’t go too well. For most of us when we read a certain book and decide it’s too old it’s a snap decision based on a holistic assessment, but from that we can probably pick out triggers (sex, language, violence, length, pacing, vocabulary, other child presentation issues) that make it seem appropriate for an older audience. We may not agree–in fact, we probably won’t–on what those triggers are. I don’t have a problem with any YA book being nominated and considered for the Newbery since I know that the consensus process has a way of weeding out most of them. No, I would not reject a book solely on length. If THE LOST CONSPIRACY by Frances Hardinge had been eligible, I would have been arguing for all 500+ pages of it.

  43. Jonathan Hunt says:

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