Introducing the Documentary Novel

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No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (2012)

Opening line: “Everybody keeps saying be satisfied with Jesus’s love, and he will give us our daily bread. I keep waiting, but we never get any bread, so I have to go out and do things for myself.”

I’ve been immersed in the realm of non-fiction lately, trying to find extended informational texts for our ELA teachers to use in their classes (since, according to CCSS, students should be reading 2 extended informational texts per year at the middle school level — yikes). This has led to all sorts of confusing conversations about what qualifies as informational, what qualifies as extended, etc. And this new “genre” introduced by Nelson only muddles the conversation even further.

What a peculiar book. As the subtitle states, it chronicles the life and work of Lewis Michaux, evidently an incredibly influential Harlem bookseller in the 1940s-70s. Has anyone heard of this guy before now? His bookshop was the gathering place for famous poets, writers, activists, and leaders, most notably, Malcolm X. Not only did he house the great leaders of the civil rights movement, but he was an outspoken voice himself, loudly displaying controversial signs in his windows, shouting as he pulled book carts down the sidewalks, always advocating for African Americans to educate themselves with materials written by them, for them, and about them. He believed in his store and what he was selling, calling it “The House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda.” Because according to Michaux, “Knowledge is the thing that is needed among young people today. You can’t protect yourself if you don’t know something.”

So not only was this content new and exhilarating, but the format too was something different than I’ve ever read before. Nelson (or her publishers, as the case may be) describes it as a “documentary novel,” which means it’s a blend of various character voices in little paragraph or page-long snippets and media (photographs, newspaper clippings, FBI reports, etc.) to create a picture of a historical figure. The actual voices are created from the author’s imagination, but the characters and clippings are almost all true and historical. So does this qualify as an “extended informational text”? It’s conventions (photos/images/graphs with captions, index, references, bibliographies, etc.) would suggest so. But it’s structure is one very much of a storytelling narrative, so I think all in all, no. Does that mean it does not share information with readers? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I learned all kinds of information I didn’t know before by reading Nelson’s book. It’s definitely informational, regardless of Common Core’s definitions.

Although I learned a ton and powered through this in less than 24 hours, the content is a bit dry for teen readers. I have a feeling it would take quite a motivated reader to pick up this selection and read it in its entirety. A powerful story, and one told in a new and inventive way, but not quite as engaging as I had hoped.

1.5 stars

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One thought on “Introducing the Documentary Novel

  1. This sounds fantastic Emily! I can only imagine in a few more years, when ebook versions of things like this will include video, web links etc. regularly…thus blending mediums even more. Adding this to my summer reading for sure.

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