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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

No Crystal Stair, Nina’s Take

nelson No Crystal Stair, Ninas TakeAs I understand better the distance created for me in the prose style of BOMB, I also understand better why I find Nelson’s book so engaging, collapsing that distance.  So it’s interesting to note that for many of you who responded in Jonathan’s first post on this title,  your concern was exactly one of distance.  Wendy asked, in the original post, what it was that made me feel like I could “trust” this author’s voice.

This book has the same “second read effect” for me as LIAR & SPY did: it seems very clear how purposefully pieced together each character’s conversation, each newspaper article or flyer is.   As each character or side character enters and speaks, the story evolves piece by piece.  What IS the story?  Well, Lewis is the main character, and the narrative is trying to create a biography of this character.  Here’s where the fiction/nonfiction dichotomy gets complicated, because if you read this as fiction, there’s an expectation for each of the characters to have distinct developments, and here not all of them do.  When I read it as nonfiction however this doesn’t matter so much to me.  Since the story is Lewis’, I’m ok with the side characters serving the development of his life story.  Some of you felt that the side characters sound alike. I’m not sure I agree.  Some of the family members sound similar, and the least developed characters do blend together a little.  But I think the challenge with the side characters is just meeting them all; it’s like getting introduced at a big party.  This is where the book asks a lot of its readers, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask. If we heed Roger Sutton’s instruction to let the book tell us how to read it, this one has plenty of white space and clean headings that invited me to backtrack and browse when I lost a thread…it has a family tree, and index of historical characters to help map those connections.

The way Nelson builds this reminds me a little of the theater work of Anna Deveare Smith: one person on stage presenting interpretations of lots of other characters; all voices leading to a theme.  You know at once that you are seeing an actress’s interpretation of real people, and you believe that the character on stage is real.  Nelson lets the reader know pretty clearly how she constructed her story from documentation, interviews, and conjecture.  Her source notes indicate when something is “adapted,” which she also talks about in her author notes.   If a reader waits to the end to read these notes, it might be a rude awakening to discover that some of the “documentation” presented in grey background is not totally as it is in the real source.   But I think that curious readers don’t necessarily wait to the end to read the end notes.  I read like some eat Oreos…all the outside info first, then the guts.  Then the outside again: better than Oreos! Or, as soon as something raises I question for me, I skip to the end.  Because reading these notes aided my reading of the text, because I understood what the author was trying to achieve and how, I felt like what I was hearing was a “real” story…I trusted it, and that trust allowed me to connect.

Now, I know that we’ve talked about whether young readers read source notes.  Here I think it’s important to look at how this book presents itself: “Documentary Novel” pretty clearly indicates something different is going on.  And the way the book reads is just …different.  This may not be a book for readers who don’t like “different” in their reading (and there is nothing wrong with that).

DaNae raised a question back in September:

“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.”

Her question was taken up by others and I took exception with the assumption that readers for this book wouldn’t know the basics of who Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey are.  When I read this a second time, I find even more that readers don’t need to bring much knowledge at all these two men.  When they are introduced into the story, the oral-history / patchwork style of the narrative gives just a little at a time, but it gives a lot over its course.   Garvey comes up first on p. 14, and over the course of 3 pieces (Lewis, John Henry, Lewis again), we get to see their thinking developing around Garvey’s ideas.   The reader gets to listen in, as if on an adult conversation, and understand the very basics of what Garvey was arguing in his time, why it was controversial, and what it means to Lewis’ character development to embrace some of his ideas.  This discussion over Garvey itself then sets the stage for John Henry’s death, and his sons’ responses it to it…  Lewis and his father’s meeting of the minds over Garvey becomes a crucial piece of Lewis’ story.

When Malcolm X shows up on the scene (p.75) he is a little more dropped in there…picked up and teased out and developed in later sections, due to chronology (Lewis meets him, and connects with him, early).  I do think that Nelson makes an assumption here that readers likely know who Malcolm X is, but I’d guess most 11 yr olds know he was a figure-head of the civil rights movement, most commonly compared to Martin Luther King. Jr and known for the statement “by any means necessary.”  That is kind of all you need to know to go with it.  And I don’t think it disrupts the reading too much if this is truly the first time a reader has come across him.  Where others found the patchwork, dipping-in-and-out narrative disengaging, I found it let me connect where I could connect, go back and reconnect to something I’d seen earlier, wait for it to come round again.

So is lack of previous knowledge a deal-breaker?  I do think that here, the fullest appreciation of NO CRYSTAL STAIR is aided by a decent knowledge of the civil rights movement.  But I also think that 1) There are plenty of readers under 14 who have that knowledge, who are the ideal readers for this book; and 2) the book is distinguished even without this level of understanding.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    So many things to say . . .

    1. First of all, does anyone really care whether children have enough background knowledge to fully appreciate it? Children miss all kinds of things in their reading that prevent a fuller appreciation. If we’re going to play by those rules, then I’m going to yank SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS off the table for the vocabularly alone, never mind the conventions of the Victorian novel that are alien to most children. Back in the day, I had not a few children hooked on these sad, sad stories of orphans where terrible things happened to them: A Series of Unfortunate Events. Does it lessen the child reading experience that they did not fully experience these novels in (a) the way that the author probably intended or (b) the way that, I, the adult reader did? It’s a complete non-issue for me, but if it was . . . Second, there is enough background information, but as Nina says it’s delivered in pieces rather than in chunks.

    2. While this book is a work of fiction, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with describing it as a novel because I think that sets up all kinds of expectations that the book does not deliver. NO CRYSTAL STAIR is closest in spirit to a biography because the author’s purpose and intention is to introduce readers to the life of a man and show how he influenced–and was influenced by–his millieu.

    3. In my earlier post, I asked readers to think of this as monologues for the stage, and Nina has reinforced that metaphor with her comparison to Anna Deveare Smith. Additionally, Rachel Stein added this metaphor at For Those About to Mock: “The man seems to have been something of an enigma, and the way Nelson uses these fictional fragments to piece together his identity acknowledges that as well. It feels almost like literary Cubism, different facets of Micheaux emerging depending on the angle from which he is viewed.” I’d like to pick up the painting metaphor and run with it. I’m also going to compare it to pointilism (e.g. Georges Serat), “the technique [that] relies on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color spots into a fuller range of tones.”

    4. NO CRYSTAL STAIR relies on the reader to take these brief vignettes and seamlessly blend them into a cohesive narrative, and thus this author is requiring more of her readers than BOMB, LIAR & SPY, and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS in order to make her story succeed on the same level. Similarly, I think MR. AND MRS. BUNNY and TWELVE KINDS OF ICE require the tacit and complicit approval of readers to fully succeed, they too do not fit comfortably in the Newbery mold, and while it may be difficult–perhaps nigh impossible–to build consensus around them because of this, I do not think they are necessarily any less distinguished than the more consensus-friendly frontrunners.

    5. While this book does have great storytelling elements–plot, character, setting–it’s style and theme which really elevate this book to the level of *most* distinguished. I love that this book is about politics and religion and that both of these are portrayed with complexity and finesse. I love that this book, like THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, asks us to consider what it means to be human on the deepest level: reading and language, family and society, and the struggle not only of a man to achieve his potential, but the struggle for an entire race to achieve its potential. It’s heady stuff, this. It’s already beaten out arguably the best YA books in the past two years in LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM and CODE NAME VERITY and I don’t know if the damage is done. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one gets passed over by both the Newbery and Printz committees come January, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see it wearing double stickers either.

  2. Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, re #5, I didn’t even get this far in my post because I wanted to focus on some of the more mechanical aspects of the book. But I’ll say that this is the only book this year that made me cry. I have to acknowledge that my own interests play in that, but it’s hard to provoke this kind of reaction in a reader, so Nelson gets some credit too, for development of her theme.

    (It was p. 146, “Well…nature produces you and nature reduces you” that made me laugh, on the bus, and unexpectedly brought tears to the surface. I held them back until p.156, when Lewis encounters the fictional-based-on-real-life Calvin, admits that he could have “bawled like a baby,” that I did. Luckily, it was my stop.)

  3. Wendy says:

    Very puzzled by what you mean by this: “It’s already beaten out arguably the best YA books in the past two years in LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM and CODE NAME VERITY and I don’t know if the damage is done.”

  4. Mark Flowers says:

    I love everything about this book that takes place during sections narrated by Lewis.

    The rest . . . not so much. So many of the voices sound alike. So many of the sections seem to be there purely for expositional reasons. Probably the worst offender in terms of voice was the newspaper reporter, who is always described as off the record, and yet is written as if he is writing an incredibly cliched newspaper column.

    If this actually was nonfiction, and these were really sources that Nelson was pulling together, I would be astonished. But since she can write it however she wants, I was just annoyed by the short vignettes that do nothing more than tell us something Lewis himself could have told us.

    I should note at this point, that these are actually objections from my second reading of the book. The first time through I was so fascinated by the story that I didn’t notice any problems. But on the second round, I noticed that none of the side characters seemed to exist at all.

    @Jonathan: I don’t know what this means: “It’s already beaten out arguably the best YA books in the past two years in LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM and CODE NAME VERITY and I don’t know if the damage is done”.

  5. Mark Flowers says:

    Ha! I was in the middle of typing my comment as Wendy beat me to my last question. Great minds, I guess.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    NO CRYSTAL STAIR won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award; the honor books were LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM and CODE NAME VERITY. Thus, one committee has already compared these three excellent books and found NO CRYSTAL STAIR superior. Is it really so unreasonable to expect that it might happen again in January with, say, the Printz committee? I know our friends at Someday My Printz Will Come are not very high on this book, but I still think it can–and will–continue to pick up awards in January and beyond.

    The nearest antecedent that I can give for NO CRYSTAL STAIR–and it’s one that many of us have probably not read–is YOUR OWN, SYLVIA which won a Printz honor the year that I served on that committee. Ironically, I had the same problems with that book that Mark has with this one. It’s why I think you just have to let go of certain expectations that you have for a novel. Yes, there is some differentiation in the voice, but not very much. Yes, there might be some slight character development but so very insignificant as to be virtually nonexistent. So, by the standard of a novel, these are flaws, but is this a novel?

  7. Mark Flowers says:

    I actually quite agree that NCS is a superior book to either LIFE or CNV, but then I find both of those books to be deeply flawed.

    Interesting that we had opposite takes on YOUR OWN, SYLVIA and NCS – I adored SYLVIA.

    I absolutely think characterization is a flaw, but I’m willing to grant your point for argument’s sake, because I think the much larger probably is not characterization but expositional, flat prose in the secondary characters. It’s not just that they aren’t individualized, it’s that I didn’t find what they said or how they said it particularly distinguished (or at least not “most distinguished”)–as opposed to Lewis’s sections, which I find very very distinguished in style and tone.

    Lastly, I absolutely agree that different books call for different styles of reading and different expectations, but I think it is a very delicate line to tread and you want to be careful about arguing too much and then allowing something that is really not distinguished into the conversation because it can claim different rules.

  8. Nina Lindsay says:

    Mark, do you find a difference btwn the side characters who are very incidental, vs the ones that have a continuing role to play? I found Lightfoot, Norris, Mary Michaux, Bettie, Snooze, etc. all had something definite to say in a different perspective, and with a different voice, than Lewis.

  9. Wendy says:

    Oh. I guess I don’t take awards that seriously. I mean, criteria is different for each award and opinions are capricious. The expressions “beaten” and “damage” are kind of amusing, but now I see what you’re getting at.

    I think this is a good book, but I don’t think it’s the second coming; and I don’t think it’s better than Code Name Verity but it is doing something more different and riskier, and that’s kind of why I figured it won the BGHB. (I’ve lost all my taste for book hierarchy lately.)

  10. Mark Flowers says:

    Again, I’m willing to concede the “different voices” argument in favor of the expositional one:

    Lightfoot: “Lewis doesn’t help. Telling me and everyone who cares to listen that I chose Mary because of her light skin. And Poppa, for reasons I don’t understand, encourages him. There is something between Lewis and Poppa that runs deep” (p. 9)

    “Lewis’s connection with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam is of major concern to me. Why must he insist upon aligning himself with radicals and extremists? Director Hoover will take notice. Heaven help up if he gets entangled with the FBI” (p. 76)

    “Guess I was wrong about the bookstore. Lewis made it work. He really made it work. Don’t ask me how, but that crazy s.o.b. got black people to buy books” (p. 97)

    “Lewis received an eviction order today from the State of New York. We have to vacate the premises by January 1. This time, there’s no place to go” (p. 142)

    I just don’t see any of this as distinguished writing. Some of it moves forward the character who is speaking and all of it moves forward the plot, but it is just poorly executed. The short declaratory sentences, especially, make all of these sound like they are part of a textbook entry.

  11. Wendy says:

    Yeah, I don’t think I would go as far as “poorly executed”, but it certainly isn’t very subtle, and is probably what keeps me from being quite as enthusiastic about this as Nina and Jonathan are. (A strange position to be in, since this is one of my favorites of the year.) For sheer excellence in style–which, if I weren’t paying attention to Newbery criteria, is the most interesting aspect to me–LIAR & SPY runs away with all the honors. Also maybe THE GREAT UNEXPECTED.

  12. TeenReader says:

    The biggest problem I had with No Crystal Stair. In the original pot, I think someone mentioned (I can’t seem to find the comment) that there was a problem with Lewis struggling to get people to buy his books, and then a few pages later, BAM! he’s successful. I completely agree. To me, it’s so odd that Nelson didn’t use the full advantages of fictionalization to fill in some of these cracks. Also, while it is Lewis’s story, I felt that a lot of other characters were introduced and then ignored. The older brother, for instance, did not have a vignette to comment on his own wife’s death: that was left to Lewis. Characterization, voice, and theme I think are all effective here, but the flaws are enough to me that it’s not on my top five.

  13. Nina Lindsay says:

    TeenReader, one of the things it took me a moment to get used to was to check for time passing between entries…which then lessens that “BAM” feeling. Once I expected the “flash forward” pacing I appreciated it…part of the trick of pulling together a whole full life into a short read.

    Mark, these are probably the least exceptional points of the book. At the same time…would you really have preferred Lewis report the whole thing? I appreciated having voices change, having a few different people report on the progress of an event.

  14. Nina Lindsay says:

    …..NEWS BULLETIN….hey everyone, get your comments in now. We’ll be “freezing” this blog in a few hours for a server upgrade, details to come.

  15. Mark Flowers says:

    @Nina. Well, no. What I would have preferred would have been more fully realized side characters who, even if their function was merely to illustrate facts about Lewis’s life, at least didn’t *sound* that way.

    But given the option between what we have and a book entirely narrated by Lewis, I’d much prefer the latter, simply because it is clear to me that Nelson had much more control of Lewis’s voice than anyone else’s.

  16. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mark, I actually like YOUR OWN, SYLVIA quite a bit, actually, but I had to let go of the fact that the voices and characterization of the secondary characters were not up to what I would expect in a novel, especially the *best* novels that it was competing against. These “flaws” didn’t become apparent to me until multiple readings of YOUR OWN, SYLVIA–just as they really stood out to you in NO CRYSTAL STAIR on your second reading.

    I don’t have any problems with the way that Nelson–and Hemphill, for that matter–use the secondary characters for exposition. They aren’t really characters in the sense of a novel. They only exist in relation to the main character. I don’t find those portions that you have quoted as markedly different from the rest of the book, or poorly executed, or any worse than random lines from any of the leading contenders.

    I’m of two minds on how much our expectations should weigh in the evaluation. This is a work of fiction, but not necessarily a novel, despite the subtitle. A better subtitle might have been this–NO CRYSTAL STAIR: A FICTIONALIZED BIOGRAPHY. I think that’s closer to describing what this actually is. And yet because it is billed as a novel I do not think it is necessarily unfair to hold it accountable to the standards of a novel. YOUR OWN, SYLVIA never billed itself as a novel, but rather as “a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath.”

    I paid close attention to the “jumpy” pacing this time around. Each of these vignettes is labeled with a year and the speaker, so the readers can keep their bearings throughout the novel in relation to both the passage of time and the viewpoint character.

  17. Georgie says:

    I think a lot of books are not fully appreciated when you don’t know the full history that’s why each reader brings something to the table when he/she is reading. I learned a story I never knew about by reading No Crystal Stair. I liked the different voices, but the story did drag on for me.

  18. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    One of my favorite scenes in this book is when Martin Luther King visits Harlem, but signs in the white bookstore. It just reveals the complexity of the black community in a way that I don’t think we’ve seen before, save perhaps ONE CRAZY SUMMER. And if you read MARCHING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP by Ann Bausum, it’s hard to reconcile that MLK with this one. MASTER OF DECEIT also informs a greater understanding of the FBI files. Interesting how these books kind of play off each other.

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