3_2_Crystal_Splendors No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Nelson Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz Candlewick

Judged by James Patterson

It seems criminal to have to pick between SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS and NO CRYSTAL STAIR, to lead kids away from either of these tremendous stories.

SLJ, what gives?

SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS is one of the year’s best. It’s on the bestseller lists, won a Newbery honor, and is certainly worthy of all the attention -- kids are loving the mystery story of two young puppeteers willing their new friend out of a curse. I loved it, too.

It’s peppered with twists and turns. Author Laura Amy Schlitz says she’s paying homage to Dickens, and she’s done him justice—I jumped from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and was genuinely afraid for these poor kids. And I can’t decide who I’d run faster from, OLIVER TWIST’S lurking Fagin or SPLENDORS’ drunken Grisini.

There’s years of rich research packed into the story here. I can see classrooms reading this book and talking about the poverty of Victorian London, the history of entertainment, the thrills of steampunk…

Suffice to say, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS is a pageturner to be reckoned with for years to come.

But NO CRYSTAL STAIR hit a vulnerable spot for me, and what I think should be a vulnerable spot for everybody: it proves that books, and people like the librarians and booksellers who surround others in books, can change lives, strengthen neighborhoods, even change the world. There’s power in a place that gives access to books and reading—a power we can’t afford to lose.

NO CRYSTAL STAIR, by Vaunda Michaeux Nelson, tracks the life of Lewis Michaux (who happens to be Nelson’s grand-uncle) and his founding of the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem. Michaux started by setting up a cart of books on the street corner and yelling “Don’t get took! Read a book! Come on by and take a look!” (Man, I miss living in New York City.)

Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. DuBois, and Malcolm X hung out at Lewis Michaux’s bookstore, and Michaux’s number one priority (after selling books, of course) was to keep their minds fueled, and keep the conversation heated.

I love that this could be read as a book, or played as a documentary. The quick monologues fly off the page like a movie.

And Michaux is a character and a half. The FBI—whose files are printed alongside his accounts--kept a watch on Michaux for selling “antiwhite” literature.  But what Michaux was really doing, was providing the best place of learning to ever hit New York City.

The African National Memorial Bookstore was a forum for people who didn’t have one before, and a rich source of African American authors and culture too. He pointed his finger at the white students who made their way uptown; he accused them of not doing enough to help their black neighbors. And when Black Panthers came in the store, holding up their fists, he unclenched them, and gave them books to clench instead. Michaux’s book collection and his personality began to change people’s habits, change people’s minds.

Nelson notes in the back of the book that she visited the store once as a child, but had no idea of its influence, or the story she had at her fingertips, until she was older. At that point, Michaux was already gone. And soon, as is becoming the trend in this country, the bookstore was gone too.

How could I resist this almost-non-fiction, Civil Rights-insider, media map of a story? A book about a man who grew up picking berries, then worked hard, opened up a bookstore, and became a superstar?

Sorry, but that’s my idea of a national hero.

Is it too late for us to redefine who we’re calling heroes in this country? Can’t the booksellers, the librarians, be king?

While kids read NO CRYSTAL STAIR, flipping through the mixed media, jumping through the different people’s voices, they’re getting a great message, one of the most important messages we have to offer as authors and librarians and teachers and gatekeepers: it’s cool to love books, to come together and share your ideas and passions. Books can be powerful enough to upset the norm, to actually change the way our world thinks. We’ve got to keep hammering this point home, because it’s true, but too many people out there seem to have forgotten it.

We’ve got to face the facts. Bookstores in this country are dying. Libraries are being pulled out from under us. The chances of a kid in this country coming in contact with a book he or she will love are getting pretty slim. Isn’t that scary?

So what are we doing about it? Let’s start with making some noise about this no-more-books, no-more-bookstores problem. And then, of course, let’s go out, and pick up books to bring home for our kids—books as great as NO CRYSTAL STAIR and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS.

Give SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS to all of your kids who want a terrific, meaty mystery. But everyone should read NO CRYSTAL STAIR, which, if I must call a winner here, is my pick. Give it to all of your students, and let them flip around and go at it at their own pace. Better yet, bring a bunch of kids together and read this one aloud.

-- James Patterson


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

I’m already on record as belatedly and somewhat reluctantly jumping on the SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS bandwagon. I really do think it is a fabulous novel—even if it’s not quite my cup of tea. On the other hand, I’ve announced my unwavering support for NO CRYSTAL STAIR since the very beginning of the Heavy Medal season. I understand why some people have trouble warming up to it, but James has articulated what works so well that I find no way to improve upon it. What he said.

-- Commentator Jonathan Hunt

Rooting for both Splendors and Glooms and No Crystal Stair in the previous rounds puts me in a tough position to comment on this match. With Round 3 coming to a tight close, the victor of this match goes on to the Big Kahuna Round, the round which determines this years winners. Both books are highly qualified to win this title, but one must  prevail over the other. Splendors and Glooms transported me into a dark, twisted , fantastical world that imprisoned my outside thoughts and focused my every being on the story unfolding before my eyes. No Crystal Stair told a story that every human being regardless of age should read and have knowledge about, a story that was both moving and important about our country's past. Although I was strongly compelled and moved by the heartwarming story about the African American fight for racial equality, Splendors and Glooms not only interested me and transfixed me, but gave me the power to let go of my wandering thoughts and focus on the truly amazing masterpiece that Laura Amy Schiltz created.

-- Kid Commentator GI

Again, I can't trust myself with Splendors and Glooms. In hindsight, I've appreciated it more, but I really have to read it again. And Mr. Patterson is definitely right – No Crystal Stair is an important book. Since Lewis Michaux's story is also absolutely fascinating, it definitely deserves a spot in the finals. But, as of this match, there is no middle-grade fiction left, and it is unlikely to come back in the Undead Poll; Code Name Verity will probably win (which isn't a bad thing). Is MG Fiction cursed? They fare badly against non-fiction, worse against YA fiction… Although the judges clearly enjoy books like Splendors and Glooms, those stories just don't seem to have enough importance to most readers (including myself). And middle-grade fiction does have meaning, just not as tragically.

-- Kid Commentator RGN

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