This post originally appeared on the Engage/Teacher to Teacher blog in February 2012. Vaunda Micheaux Nelson received the 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award for BAD NEWS FOR OUTLAWS: THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF BASS REEVES, DEPUTY U.S. MARSHAL (Carolrhoda Books 2009). WHO WILL I BE, LORD? (Random House 2009), ALMOST TO FREEDOM (Carolrhoda Books 2003), READY? SET. RAYMOND! (Random House 2002), and MAYFIELD CROSSING (Putnam 1993) are among her other books. She co-authored JUNETEENTH (Millbrook 2006) with her husband, Drew, with whom she lives in New Mexico. The subject of your latest book, NO CRYSTAL STAIR, is Harlem bookseller Lewis Michaux, who left behind some mysteries (like his exact birth date). Can you describe your research process for uncovering the facts about his life?
This is a huge question about a process that extended over many years and continues, not only formal research but family history. In brief, I acquired source material from family members, the Schomburg Center in Harlem, Howard University, the Hatch- Billops Collection, court records, church documents, FBI files, census records, death certificates and other vital statistic sources, and oral stories. I traveled to New York City, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Newport News, Virginia. Many questions went unanswered and will likely remain so. When faced with contradictory information, I weighed what I could, drew conclusions and made reasonable guesses. NO CRYSTAL STAIR is billed as a “documentary novel,” and your first foray in writing for teens. Why did you make the decision to write this story in this particular genre?
My early drafts, written as straight biography, lacked the emotion I was reaching for. The fictionalized documentary format gave me the flexibility to reveal Lewis’s spirit, intelligence, charm, and weaknesses. By the way, I consider my novel POSSIBLES as my initial foray into writing for teens. The title NO CRYSTAL STAIR is taken from the Langston Hughes poem “Mother to Son.” What’s the connection between the two?
Hughes’s poem addresses the struggle to overcome long odds, the spirit to keep climbing, and in this case, Lewis’ journey from troubled young man to “Professor.” In your Coretta Scott King Book Award-winning BAD NEWS FOR OUTLAWS, you wrote about another lesser-known historical figure—Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves. What drew you to Reeves as a subject?
His character. His absolute commitment to doing his duty. His unwavering devotion to what was right. Also, he lived in a time and place that has always intrigued me—the Old West. How does your position as a youth services librarian influence your writing?
On the downside, my full-time library work creates a time obstacle to my writing. On the upside, it keeps me immersed in the literary world, abreast of what is current, as well as classic, and in touch with the mood of my patrons. It has also proven invaluable in meeting and interacting with other writers.
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