So I am mad excited about the existence (and demise long before I was born, sadly) of this bookstore, and it totally makes me want to bulk up my to-read list with some Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and a ton of other titles mentioned in the text. Also, the ephemera-documentary style of this book fascinates me, even if I don’t think it’s entirely successful.
But what do I actually think. Hmm…
First of all, this is a story that deserves to be read, and the publishers did it a huge disservice by publishing it in a gigantic trim size. This book is unwieldy, and even though the content made me want to read it for long periods of time, I didn’t, because the pages were slippery, it was too big and heavy to hold while lying in bed, and, being the tactile person that I am, the jacket really grossed me out, because the material it’s made of is just nasty.
Sorry, but that has a huge effect on the reading experience and on first impressions, which, you know, are the real things that prompt book buying and checking out, so this book got screwed there.
Second, I think part of my excitement comes from having been at the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards symposium and seeing Nelson and her illustrator and getting to talk to them for a second and get my book signed. That always makes me give books a little more love. Plus, I am a research nerd, and this book is like a documentary on how writers do research, which is cool and a little meta.
Oh, but the actual book. Right. So. I’m a little worried about its nebulous placement in fiction because as far as I can tell, not only are some of the documents actually “real” (though transcribed and not facsimile, usually), but I think Nelson commissioned or republished some of the perspectives of the writers Michaux knew who are still around today, like Nikki Giovanni (whom you should read immediately, because she is fab). Obvs she did the literary and responsible fiction thing of simplifying, making dates and characters easier to follow and stuff. So yeah, it’s fiction. Except that it’s not the most compelling fiction and only kept me reading because I knew so much of it, both the story and the intertext, to be true.
There’s also the question of whether this book is really YA. There’s a difference, I think, between a book that can be really interesting, useful, or relevant to a teen and a book that is actually YA. This book seems to be more of the former, because its documentary approach means there are a gazillion voices and no real characters, I’m sorry to say. Even Michaux himself seems interesting, but it’s more that I’m given the implication that he’s interesting than the actual impression, and again, that’s probably colored from my having a lot of information from outside the text. After my YA lit class for GSLIS this semester, we read a few YA nonfiction titles, did assignments in collection development for nonfiction collections, and read reviews of titles as well as critical articles on evaluation of them. So I can now say I’m a total expert on YA nonfic, of course. And I’m already a rabid reader of YA fiction as a scholar, librarian, and fangirl. So let’s say, for the purposes of this review, that I have all of the correct opinions and knowledge about all YA ever.
The thing that seems to be missing from No Crystal Stair is that sense of a character with urgency and immediacy who is on the cusp of something. YA is about being in between (so will New Adult, but that’s a conversation – that I’m dying to have – for another time) and on the edge, and I don’t see that in this book. Michaux could be that character, but instead, in all of the places we hear him speak, he’s already figured things out. All we get to know about him is that he is clearly AWESOME and inspiring to all he meets. And the younger characters we hear from are all too sparsely represented to be called major characters. Obviously it’s called “documentary novel,” and it absolutely is like a transcript for a documentary film. But those films work because you feel involved and because they give you the picture of something bigger than one person (generally speaking, and at least in all of the documentaries I’ve enjoyed). Books, though, need one person or one entity to keep the reader hooked and to be the lens for the reader to feel involved with the greater entity. And I can’t say that felt like I was reading a story here.
So I dunno. I think people should read this book because it will be like nothing they’ve read before, and because probably in a lot of people it will spark an interest in learning more about history, about cultural studies, about critical race theory, whatever. But is it a functional novel? I’m really not so sure.