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.
Thus, 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.