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Battle of the Books

Round 3, Match 2: Splendors and Glooms vs No Crystal Stair

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

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……

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



  1. I can’t deny that Louis Michaux’s story is important – any story that talks about the importance of books and the ideas they impart is vital to our society that seems at times too interested in television and video games. I just didn’t like the way the story was told. I know a lot of people will disagree with me and that’s fine — the story just didn’t work for me.

  2. And so the one book I incorrectly predicted getting knocked out in the first round moves on to the finals. I think this is one that I need to re-read, as it just didn’t capture my attention the first time around. I am becoming more and more convinced that it needs to be turned into a play – I’m starting to see the staging in my head already.

    I’m also thinking that CNV is going to be the undead winner, although there are several titles that I wouldn’t be surprised to sneak in there, including Wonder, Ivan, Bomb, and Liar and Spy.

  3. Meredith says:

    I agree, Paige. I found the story of No Crystal Stair to be fascinating, but I wasn’t a fan of the presentation. Oh well. I’ve discovered the biggest problem with reading all of the books before the battle starts-I’ve been very disappointed by some of the results. In years past, when books I loved were eliminated, I couldn’t really say anything about it, because I hadn’t read the competition.

  4. In an ideal world, I would have loved for the final match to have been Bomb, Code Name Verity, and The One and Only Ivan. That would have given us a nonfiction, a YA novel, and a middle grades novel and lots tto discuss.

  5. Sam Bloom says:

    Yes! Team Michaux marches into the Big Kahuna round – go Ms. Vaunda!

  6. Yay! I finally had a round where I picked both winners!

    Splendors & Glooms and No Crystal Stair were both toward the bottom of my list of all the books in the tournament. (Beat out for the very bottom by Jepp, Who Defied the Stars.) But I kept explaining that I did enjoy all the books that were selected this year. They are excellent books. And I thought James Patterson did an excellent job explaining why No Crystal Stair achieves excellence.

    But now for Code Name Verity to come back from the dead and beat them all!

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

    I can go for that.

    Sad over the decision, but since I was worried NCS would usurp SPLENDORS for Newbery recognition, so I will be content.

    Zombie and Julie will come back and reign supreme.

  8. That’s interesting Kalen, because I read NCS twice and kept thinking “It’s a good thing this isn’t a play or it would be really boring….” And I agree with Paige that it would be great to have diversity in the final round.

  9. Battle Commander Battle Commander says:

    Kalen, that’s an interesting point you made there. Do you find some of the books UNlovable? Not up to standard? Or just that they are not on the top of your pile of 16?

  10. Steffaney Smith says:

    I’m with Paige and wishing Ivan, preferably, was representing the middle school fiction in the final battle. Just one of those years when the YA fiction and the nonfiction titles were just so competitivly great. A winner for the middle school fiction will have to be flaw-lessly written. All you authors, are you up to the task? Will be reading and reading and seeking that BoB-worthy middle school fiction title to slay the young adult titles next year. I will say of all the author commentaries, I enjoyed Patterson’s. thank you for such wise, cautionary thoughts. We librarians weed through the offerings to hand out the very best & important works to the students and I realize No Crystal Stair must be among those. I pledge to buy it for my children’s collection, read it and pass it along.

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