2_4_Seraphina_Crystal No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Nelson Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Seraphina by Rachel Hartman Random House

Judged by Paul Griffin

The absolute last guy you want to be a judge is somebody who takes an hour to figure out which pair of pants he should wear for the day, especially when that guy owns two pairs of pants.  I begged, I pleaded not to be made to do this, but Scottie Bowditch, who is the Director of School and Library Marketing at Penguin, and who is also very lovely, said, “Please?” then “Please!” then, “You’re doing it.”  I, being an idiot guy, always do whatever lovely women tell me to do, just ask anybody at Penguin, which is pretty much all women and all lovely, and so here I am.  Also, Rick Margolis is one of the nicest people on the planet, and if he asks you to be a judge, you do it.  And just so you know, just in case you have to be a BotKB judge in the future: The stress involved in being part of this thing exceeded my already considerable trepidations.

We all know that the amount of betting that goes on for Battle of the Kids’ Books is insane to the point it’s vital to the infrastructure of the nation’s gaming industry.  What I didn’t know was that the stakes would get to where I would be begged—nay, bullied—for inside information.  I was offered things.  Things like candy.  Yes, half the take of the paper mache trophy filled with mini Snickers bars awarded to the BotKB bracket winner at Dial Books, which is the bad girl crew of children’s publishing—as if I needed to tell you this.  As if the implication that one would willingly be involved in such a sordid form of cheating isn’t awful enough to bear, they tempt you with Snickers.  Snickers are, like, awesome.  Saying no to mini Snickers is almost as impossible as saying no to Scottie Bowditch.

Bad news first: I think I went over this already, the fact that somehow I’ve been allowed to be a judge.  Worse: My battle?  It’s a tie.  Good news: I figured out how to break it, sort of.  Best yet: Both books are unconditionally amazing.  At the same time, they are very different.  One is a hard-hitting biography described by its author as a “documentary novel,” and the other is a lyrical yet equally hard-hitting fantasy.  So on what basis or bases does one judge them?

The great Jonathan Stroud asked the same question in his marvelous review of last year’s BotKB finalists, so I borrowed from the Big Kahuna’s strategy (all right, I outright stole it) and decided that my best chance of being of service to both books would be found in comparing them based on what they had in common.  While both stories speak to many issues and themes, they are, for me, mostly and most beautifully about courage.

Okay, so I’ll start with No Crystal Stair because it came first in the mail and also because, unlike the package containing poor Seraphina, it came with a very sweet letter from one Ms. Katie O’Neel, who signed off with, “Please contact me with any questions or problems.” (Clearly this is code for “pick our book, and we’ll send you a sack full o’ Snickers,” but we must give K.O. points for trying.  Also, Ms. O’Neel, when I called you and left a message letting you know that I would very much love to talk with you about my problems, you did not return my call.  Qu’est-ce qui se passe ici?)  No Crystal Stair is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking.  You will cry when you read this book, even as your heart soars.  Here’s why:

Our protagonist Lewis Michaux (author Vaunda Micheaux [sic] Nelson’s grand-uncle), overcomes odds that are not only so not in his favor but also so deliberately stacked against him—and that’s just to get to the beginning of his stunningly beautiful dream, which I’ll get to in a minute.  Lewis is in no way his mother’s favorite son, and he finds himself in trouble early on when as a boy he’s publicly whipped by a cop for stealing peanuts.  Later, he’s incarcerated for running an illegal gambling parlor.  When the police raid his joint, one of the cops doesn’t like Lewis’s quick wit and pokes out the young man’s eye.

Lewis attempts to change his ways, sort of, and agrees to a marriage arranged by his venerable older brother, the Reverend Elder Lightfoot Michaux, who is Mom’s favorite and is now leader of a flourishing and financially rewarding religious organization, the Church of God.  Lewis is less a man of God and very much a man of the people, and he heads north from his native Virginia to Harlem to recruit members for the church’s newest venture, a planned community being developed in Pennsylvania farm country.  Lewis’s recruiting efforts fail along with his marriage, and he’s left homeless and penniless.  Without enough money to buy lunch, he offers to wash diner windows for a cup of soup.  Lewis’s situation is grim, but Vaunda, our fearless storyteller, doesn’t pull out the violins.  (She is remarkable in her restraint, and in so many other ways.)  Rather, she celebrates Lewis’s extraordinary ability to find hope in his improbable dream.  Now for the dream, and the comeback…

Lewis wants to open a bookstore and “sell books to black people.”  We’re in the 1930’s now, and when Lewis applies for a business loan, the banker tells him, “Negroes don’t read.  Now, if [you] wanted to open a place to sell fried chicken or chitterlings, we could do business.”  Lewis’s younger brother Norris says, “Selling books?  To colored folks?  I may be a gambling man, but not when the odds of winning are zero.”

Lewis takes to the streets, selling books by hand until he can save up enough money to rent a storefront.  Oh so slowly, he builds his business, and by the time Lewis retires decades later in the 1970’s, the store holds a quarter of a million volumes.  But the journey is never easy.  The police and the FBI are forever watching Lewis.  You see, the shop offers more than books.  It’s a place where pioneers in social justice come to get schooled by “The Professor,” as Lewis is now known.  In the back of the shop, over strong cups of Ivory Coast coffee (a gift from Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana), Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X come for counseling.  (Incidentally, Lewis was supposed to have been sitting next to Malcolm X when Malcolm was assassinated.  He arrived a few minutes late after being delayed in traffic, returning from picking up his son from an ice skating event downtown.)

More than anything else, for this reader anyway, the shop is a literacy center.  Lewis has set aside a reading room for people hungry for books but unable to afford them.  In one of the book’s most touching moments, Langston Hughes asks Lewis for help in getting his poetry out into the world, and Lewis does, one book at a time.  He pulls an out of work young man off the street, sits him down in “the library” and sets The Dream Keeper before him.  The library visitor, who goes by the name of Snooze, reads:

Bring me all of your dreams, You dreamer, Bring me all your Heart melodies That I may wrap them In a blue cloud-cloth Away from the too-rough fingers Of the world.

And in that dream-like shelter of a reading room, Snooze’s life changes.  He keeps coming to the store for more poetry.  He goes on to finish school and starts calling himself Samuel.  He becomes Youth Supervisor and Program Director of a local community center.  Gorgeous.

Lewis Michaux’s legacy is one of courage.  It’s in the literacy and fearless love he gave to his neighbors.  Part of Vaunda’s legacy will be that she showed us that love with selflessness.  Fifteen years of research went into recreating her grand-uncle’s journey.  Fifteen years of persistence and courage, and then even more courage to fill in the gaps, the periods when little or nothing was known about Lewis’s life, with empathic imagination.  Let me add here that R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations too are as brave as they are beautiful.  Mr. Christie uses black ink—that’s it, and that’s everything.  Like Vaunda’s language, the lines in the illustrations flow so smoothly, curling inward to bring our attention to the characters’ eyes.  More often than not those eyes are looking “off screen,” as if focused on the near horizon, on a coming dream…

…which brings me to Rachel Hartman’s brilliant Seraphina, also a heartbreaker infused with hope against all odds.  Seraphina is one of those characters you’ll just never be able to forget—not that you’d ever want to.  I dare you not to love this kid.  Imagine your mom dies in childbirth (yours) and the first thing your dad does is try to expunge every memory of his wife and your mom from his and your life.  Why would he do that, unless he has something to hide?

Well, as Seraphina discovers in a scene that literally had me shoving a pair of snoring dogs off me so I could sit up in bed to reread it to be sure I was reading what I thought I’d read, Mom was a saarantras, a dragon hiding out in human form.  The scene: Seraphina, age 11, is caught in the middle of a mob that is trying to take over a peaceful parade of dragons brought into town by the queen, who hopes that if dragons and humans spend more time together, they will know and understand each other better and strengthen the tentative peace between them.  The mob tramples Seraphina, until a dragon literally takes her under his giant wing and ushers her to safety.  The dragon speaks with Seraphina’s uncle’s voice.  If Mom’s brother is a dragon, then that can only mean…  Seraphina passes out and succumbs to strange visions that will haunt her for the next five years, into the story’s present day.  In her dreams are creatures that exhibit characteristics—both physical and emotional—of humans and dragons, as if the creatures are the offspring of unions between the two species.  Seraphina wakes to find her arm is itchy—very itchy.  She scratches fiercely.  Scabs form.  Then the scabs turn into scales...  Wow!

For humans and dragons to marry, never mind have children together, is forbidden.  While the peace treaty forged by the dragons and humans does not explicitly offer what punishment is due such an offense, on the fear-filled streets of Goredd the answer is perfectly clear: death for the parents, dismemberment for the child.  Thus Seraphina has to hide the bands of scales that circle her arm and now her waist.  This isn’t easy when she’s very much a visible figure at the palace court, assistant to the queen’s music director and the princess’s voice teacher.  Seraphina stands out most of all when she sings.  Her voice brings all around her to silence, and then to tears—as does Rachel’s lyrical writing.  In an inherited memory, Seraphina sees her saarantras mother sing to her human father,

My faith does not come easily; There is no Heaven without pain. My days should never flutter past Unnoted, nor my past remain Beyond its span of usefulness; Let me not hold to grief. My hope, my light, my Saint is love; In love my one belief.

A good portion of Seraphina’s story takes place in an alternate reality that we at first believe is confined to her dreams, but gradually the creatures from her dreams begin to show up in her waking life—to help or to hinder, we’re never certain, until the story’s end.  Rachel is as fearless as Seraphina as she lets her imagination soar in the alternate universe she builds inside Seraphina’s mind.  One of these alternate reality/inherited memory scenes stands out: Serpahina’s mother, in dragon form, recounts, “I burst from the mountainside and fly into the sun…  I dive east, with the wind, careening through low lenticular clouds in a glacial cirque.”  Well, with that kind of writing, I’m the one who’s bursting, diving, careening.  Exquisite.

That Seraphina is, in her mind at least if not yet in the minds of the unknowing citizens of her native Goredd, a freak, is not her only problem.  She discovers a plot to overturn the treaty that has kept dragons and humans at peace for forty years.  To divulge the plot, she will have to give up her secret, that she is half dragon.  Fortunately she’s not alone—well, sort of fortunately.  Bastard prince Lucian Kiggs has to work hard to overcome his conscience, or maybe to follow it truly.  As Captain of the Guard, Kiggs has a duty to report Seraphina’s illegal parentage, regardless of the consequences, i.e., Seraphina’s certain death.  Or is he strong enough to let Seraphina’s bravery win his heart?  Rachel never lets up on the tension, and this 450-page novel reads like a 200-page thriller.  I can see our YA friends trying to read it all in one sitting.  I know I did.  The story ends in a cliffhanger, and I better be getting a galley for book 2.

As I look over what I’ve written here, I see that for both books I’ve leaned hard on plot.  But this is what most stood out to me—the meticulous scene-by-scene construction and perfect pacing.  Both books are just good old fashioned storytelling: provocative beginnings, wild-ride middles, and endings that are at the same time happy and heart-rippingly poignant.  While plot-driven, both books are gorgeous stylistically too.  The language is pure and the writing generous.  Both Vaunda and Rachel are like great movie directors, selfless, invisible, never drawing attention to themselves with flashy moves.  They never let the writing get showy, and we’re left to focus on the characters and their struggles.  Lines like, “You can’t walk straight on a crooked line,” (No Crystal Stair) and “My other hand wants to touch his face, and I let it.  He leans into it like a cat,” (Seraphina) killed me.  Vaunda in multiple first person points of view assumes the voices—the hearts—of her many characters with the everydayness of the way we speak, and that’s my favorite kind of music.  And the choice of first person narration for a biography is a brave one and gives the story an intimacy more often found in autobiography.  Rachel also chose to speak through a first person narrator, and her voice is pitch-perfect for the dragon-inhabited alternate reality she has created, which mostly feels Renaissance-ish in terms of time period.  I’ll admit that I always found Shakespeare a tough read.  I’ll take Rachel over Bill any day.  While rich and poetic, Rachel’s writing is never intimidating and never tries to be clever.  Rather, it invites the reader into the heart of a sixteen year old who is trapped in a horrible predicament.

So in the end we have two profiles in courage about underdogs who dare to follow their hearts.  One features a groundbreaking bookseller and literacy pioneer, the other a girl dealing with more than a dragon tattoo.  Which one would you choose?  Well, if you’re like me, and I know I am, you wouldn’t, and I can’t.  Both books are too great to send one on and leave the other behind.  I don’t even have the heart to flip the coin.  I’m going to leave that to Rick Margolis.  Look, my job was to tell you about the books, and I did that at length, so I don’t feel too bad about the mini-mess I’ve made here.  The skinny is this: You’ll be doing our YA friends a big favor if you feature both of these books front and center at your libraries.  And hey, there’s an upside to my refusing to choose: I will never be asked to be a judge again, for anything, which is best for all of us.

I’m sorry, Rick.  I’ll make it up to you.  You have a Hefty-sack filled with mini-Snickers heading your way.

UPDATE: Okay, Rick just pleaded, begged, implored me to please flip the coin.  So heads No Crystal Stair, tails Seraphina.

Heads.  It's No Crystal Stair.

-- Paul Griffin


And the Winner of this match is...... NO CRYSTAL STAIR

The more I see judges in a quandary about which book to chose, the more I realize how well suited I am to this cold-blooded task.  I can weigh books fairly objectively.  If I feel two books are pretty close then I default to my natural preferences of fantasy and nonfiction.  And I have no qualms about making these decisions publicly.  SERAPHINA is a great high fantasy novel, just the kind I would have liked as a teen reader and it would be very easy for me to pick this book were it not for NO CRYSTAL STAIR.  This fictionalized biography moves me in deep and profound ways.  I’m not sure that my teenage self would appreciate it nearly as much, but it’s definitely the one I would choose to advance.  There’s so much to admire here: the voices, the setting, the structure, the design, and the themes.  

-- Commentator Jonathan Hunt

As a hardcore fantasy and dragon lover, I was overjoyed when I saw that Seraphina would be on this year's roster. After it prevailed over Moonbird in the first round, I kept my fingers crossed that it would not be pitted against No Crystal Stair, as I would have an incredibly difficult time weighing in on that battle. Obviously I had no such luck. No Crystal Stair was a beautiful twist of fact and fiction about the need for education in the Harlem community. I found it intriguing and impossible to put down. And if this wasn't already enough to win the readers over, it came complete with gorgeous illustrations that brought the text to life in a way that I did not think possible. Although I loved Seraphina with all my heart, and am hoping for it to be resurrected, I respect and agree with Judge Paul Griffin's decision to crown No Crystal Stair as the victor.

-- Kid Commentator GI

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