Vaunda Micheaux Nelson has written award-winning picture books and the Coretta Scott King Award honoree No Crystal Stair—a young adult documentary novel with illustrations by R. Gregory Christie. Below Vaunda answers questions about her latest book The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (also illustrated by R. Gregory Christie), a picture book about her great-uncle Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem.
1. In this Horn Book interview, you mentioned that you spent fifteen years researching and writing The Book Itch’s YA companion, No Crystal Stair. How did you distill that research into a picture book?
When I reached the end of the first draft of No Crystal Stair (when Lewis Jr. shares some of his memories of his father and of growing up in the bookstore), it occurred to me that a picture book from Lewis Jr.’s point of view might be a great way to introduce the bookstore to younger readers. Lewis Jr. had told me stories of riding his bike to the store, helping his father, and meeting Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. These stories were the genesis of the picture book.
2. Where do you do most of your writing, and why?
Using a laptop enables me to write in more than one place. We have an office space with a desk for writing, but lately, I find myself at the dining room table, which is generally piled with papers and books. Sometimes I write on our bed. Other times I am reading research materials in a living room recliner or on the bed. Wherever I am, even if it’s a place that isn’t conducive to writing, I try to make it so.
3. How did you choose the assassination of Malcolm X as the focal point of The Book Itch?
I didn’t, really. Lewis Jr. said he was 9 or 10 years old when he met Muhammad Ali. This would have been sometime after March 6, 1964, when Ali officially changed his name from Cassius Clay. I knew I wanted to include this slice of Lewis Jr’s life. Since Malcolm was murdered in February of 1965, it fell into place naturally. And, once I began to bring it together, this dramatic event became critical. But, I had to be careful that Malcolm’s tragedy didn’t take over the story. I wanted the heartbeat of the book to be the relationship between Lewis Jr. and his father and the impact of the bookstore . . . the power of words.
4. If you could go back in time and meet anyone who visited the National Memorial African Bookstore, who would you like to meet there? Why?
Lewis Michaux himself. I never got to know him, really. I wish I had. Research could not resolve many of my questions. I’d love for him to fill in the gaps. I’m thrilled my search led me to connect with Nikki Giovanni and the others who generously shared with me their memories of Lewis and his store.
|Vaunda with Chaun Webster, cofounder of Ancestry Books
5. Do you know of any modern-day bookstores that live out the vision of your great uncle?
It’s no secret that all brick and mortar independent bookstores must fight harder to survive in this age. Sadly, San Francisco’s famous Marcus Books, which opened its doors in 1960, bid farewell in 2014. Harlem’s Hue-Man Bookstore succumbed in 2012 after 10 years. We have lost too many.
Still, black bookstores (though few in number) continue to emerge and fill literary and cultural gaps across the country. In 2013, Hue-Man reemerged on-line, joining the digital age with what owner Marva Allen calls “a-20-years-forward vision.” While Hue-Man no longer has a storefront, it maintains its physical presence hosting “pop-up” book events at sites around Harlem. Kudos to Marva. In addition, I had the pleasure of visiting Ancestry Books in Minneapolis, which opened last year. Ancestry’s thoughtfully selected inventory is small, but its heart is not. Chaun Webster clearly embodies something of Lewis’s spirit. He and cofounder Verna Wong have created a community place offering books by people of color as well as readings, workshops, storytelling, art, and musical performances. I’ve also heard high praises of Everyone’s Place in Baltimore. The grapevine says it is quite reminiscent of the National Memorial African Bookstore. I hope to visit it someday.
Overall, I admire the passion and faith that must surely lie behind any effort to build and maintain an independent bookstore and, beyond that, to serve the black literary community as Lewis did.
Look for The Book Itch in stores and libraries near you this November.