No Crystal Stair is the real story of the first prominent black bookseller in New York City, Lewis H. Michaux. The story is told in a biographical style and focuses on the middle aged and elderly portions of Lewis’ life, and on the surface, it seems rather odd to market this book in the young adult novel; however, I believe that the publishers made a smart decision. Many young adult books are driven by a sense of revolution and social justice, just as Lewis is. Lewis also had a deep passion for imparting black history to people of all ages, but especially young people. I feel that he would be deeply pleased that his story is being marketed to young adults.
Lewis is rebellious, a trait he never truly grows out of. As a child Lewis sees loopholes in adult’s guidance. When Lewis wants a bike his parents give him advice about waiting for God. Lewis interprets this as permission to steal another boy’s bike. Even as a young man Lewis has a hard time following the rules of religion and church. Lewis deeply desires change. Even though it takes Lewis a while to figure out just what kind of change he wants to exact, Lewis becomes an essential influencer to key leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement. He becomes almost a Dumbledore-esque figure for Malcom X and young black poets and writers. The hunger Lewis feels is characteristic of many young adult protagonists. The desire for change Lewis feels is a theme common among many young adult novels such as The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, and Unwind.
Lewis’ desire to seek change stems from his father’s love of Marcus Garvey. Garvey wanted to inspire his community to reconnect with Africa, and Lewis realizes that without some kind of education about themselves, black people would never be able to realize Garvey’s dream. Even though Lewis’ vision is slow starting, the bookstore eventually becomes a cultural mecca for African-Americans across the U.S. Lewis also said and promoted what he believed even when it offended people. For example, Lewis supported Malcom X even when his brother condemns Malcom for his association with the Nation of Islam. Themes of social justice are becoming increasingly popular in young adult literature. The Hate U Give by Angie Tompkins seeks to raise awareness to police brutality and the leniency with which the justice system regards police officers. Ellen Hopkin’s The You I’ve Never Known focuses its attention on LGBT themes and abusive family dynamics. Chessy Prout’s memoir I Have a Right To: A High School Survivor’s Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope tells the true story of a young girl who was assaulted, sought justice, and the desire to help other survivors.
Lewis’ streaks of rebellion combined with his involvement with civil rights speaks not only to the young people of his era, but also to young adults of the current era. One only has to look to today’s current events to see that high schoolers and young adults are more involved in social rights and movements than they have been since the 1960s. If Lewis were still alive today I think he would be joining in with the organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement, influencing them and guiding them just as he did for the orchestrators of the Civil Rights moment.
Interacting with and educating young people was something Lewis was deeply passionate about. The book outlines some of those interactions. For example, Lewis has a deep impact on a young man named Snooze. When Lewis and Snooze first meet, Snooze has dropped out of school and has no desire to further his education, but as soon as Snooze enters the bookstore he is awed. He knows this place is something special, and soon Snooze is reading whatever black literature he can get his hands on. By the time Lewis is retiring, Snooze has gotten a degree, a great job, and is taking college classes all because of Lewis and his store. Lewis also influences a young boy named Calvin. When they meet again many years later Calvin has become a doctor because of Lewis. Because Lewis found such satisfaction in help young adults, I think this book makes a powerful addition to the canon of YA literature. I think Lewis would find it fitting as well.
Though No Crystal Stair is not your typical young adult novel, the reoccurring themes in Lewis Michaux’s life overlap with several popular YA tropes. The desire for change, revolution, and justice are feelings that YA books thrive off of, and Lewis’ story takes those feelings and gives them real life historical applications. Without the haven that Lewis provided who knows how the scope of the civil right movement may have differed? When people say young people are too shallow and uncaring to be passionate about social change not only is it a disservice, but also inaccurate. Lewis Michaux knew this and did everything in his power to encourage young people, and I feel he would be very pleased to know that he is still doing so through his writing.