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The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore
Written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Published in 2015 by Carolrhoda Books, ISBN 978-0761339434
Grades 4 – 8
Book Review
“The House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda” — also known as the National Memorial African Book Store and to those who frequented it as simply, “Micheaux’s”–  served the Harlem community for more than forty years. In this compelling picture book, author Vaunda Michaux Nelson pays tribute to the role her great uncle Lewis Micheaux’s bookstore played as a center for community activism and a symbol of freedom during the Civil Rights Movement.  Denied a loan by the bank to open a bookstore because, “Black people don’t read,” Lewis Michaux worked tirelessly, raising money to move from his pushcart into a storefront at the corner of 125thStreet and 7th Avenue. Peppered with fiery quotes reflecting Micheaux’s commitment to the message that “Knowledge is Power,” Nelson’s text is narrated in the voice of Lewis Micheaux’s son, who describes his dad’s activism with awe and respect. The significance of Micheaux’s efforts are highlighted by tragedy, the assassination of his friend, Malcom X. An exchange between Michaux and his son emphasizes his deep belief in the power of language: “They think they got rid of him. But people won’t forget, Louie. His words will never leave us.” R. Gregory Christopher’s richly textured paintings capture the intensity of the time and the vibrancy of the locale. His depiction of Malcom X’s death is stark, yet handled sensitively. A deeply shadowed image reveals the body on the ground in front of the podium, yet only readers who are ready to discuss the complexity of this death will be likely to notice and understand the bullet holes and bloodstains that blend into the background. A testament to the importance of oral and written language, this powerful picture book will inspire deep conversations about history, community, advocacy and literacy.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom
Grades 4 and Up
Harlem Text Set. Gather together a collection of books that celebrate the community of Harlem, beginning with picture books such as Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood by Carole Boston Weatherford, Harlem: A Poem by Walter Dean Myers, Sweet Music in Harlem by Debbie A. Taylor and Faith Ringgold’s Harlem Renaissance Party.  Compare how the illustrators of the picture books have chosen to depict this vibrant community. What colors and textures have they used? How do the illustrators evoke an emotional response to the locations? Provide children with contemporary and historical photographs of Harlem, inviting them to compare the illustrator’s depictions with the photographs. Follow this look at the picture books with a nonfiction text, such as Laban Carrick Hill’s Harlem Stomp!: A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance and texts in other genres, such as Walter Dean Myers’s Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices.  Students can work in small groups to research and then report out about key people, places, and significant events in the history of Harlem.
Quotes About Reading. The end papers of The Book Itch highlight Lewis Michaux’s quotes about the power of books, reading, and knowledge. Collect quotes that highlight the importance of books and reading. The Reading Rockets listing of Quotable Reading Quotes is a good starting point. Ask students to select a quote that resonates with them. Students can discuss the quote and its meaning with their classmates. Following this discussion, students can create a poster display of the quote they have chosen.
Interview a Bookseller. Arrange an opportunity for your students to talk with a bookseller, preferably an owner of an independent bookstore. If you do not have an independent bookstore in your community, consider using “Skype” and reaching out to the owners of the nearest one. Prior to the interview, students should develop a list of questions. Guide students to be sure that the questions tease out the why, what and how: Why was the bookstore established? What is important to the bookseller? How does the bookseller make choices about which books to sell? After the interview, have students create a profile of the bookseller. As an extension, interview a local librarian, asking questions to tease out why the librarian decided to become a librarian, how he/she perceived his/her role in the community and what he/she emphasizes as the importance of his/her job.
Books in Your Community. Ask your students to investigate the availability of books in your community, identifying points of access such as public library branches, school libraries, collections in community centers, and bookstores. Consider online access to books provided through the public libraries as well. You might consider beginning this look at book availability by inviting your students to ask 3-4 people they encounter in their community” “Where do you get the books that you read?” After sharing their findings from this informal survey, students can dig deeper, reaching out to community members to identify points of access for books. To share their findings, students can co-write a photo essay or create an oral presentation accompanied by visuals.
Having an Itch. Lewis Michaux Jr. states, “Maybe someday I’ll believe in something so much I’ll have the itch to make it happen.” Ask students to explore the concept of commitments and enactment. What do they believe in? What action could they take to further their belief? Consider having students share this quote with the adults in their lives, asking the adults to reflect on what it means to act on a belief system. Extend the discussion by offering students a collection of picture book biographies that explore the pursuit of a passion or a commitment.
Illustrator Study. R. Gregory Christie is an illustrator with a rich collection of works and honors, including being a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. His titles have also been included in the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books. His own interests in jazz music, often influence his books and he has illustrated numerous jazz album covers. Research with students the depth and variety of Christie’s work in a focused illustrator study. Support students in small groups to compare The Book Itchto another one of his titles or pieces noting characteristics of his style. You might model this comparison by working as a whole group to compare The Book Itch and Sugar Hill, which also depicts Harlem. Support upper elementary and middle school students to analyze the visual codes and conventions that convey meaning. Create a chart to support students’ thinking around visual codes including color, texture, line, shape, and form and conventions such as balance, layout, and verticality. (This invitation originally appeared in the Classroom Bookshelf blog entry for Sugar Hill).
Grades 8 and Up
Biography Writing Project: From Comprehensive Biography to Picture Book Biography: Vaunda Michaux Nelson and R. Gregorie Christie’s previous collaboration is a fictionalized young adult biography of Lewis Michaux: No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller. As part of a study of the genre of biography, students can read both No Crystal Stairand The Book Itch to compare these two different presentations of the life of Lewis Michaux. This comparison can introduce a conversation about the decisions authors make about audience, purpose, research, and which content to include and exclude and will support students’ own writing in the genre of biography.
Critical Literacy
Grades 4 and Up
Access to Books. Lewis Michaux’s life work focused on putting books into the hands of the people in his community. Researcher Susan Neuman has correlated access to books with reading achievement of children. Have your students read David Borstein’s opinion piece from the New York times titled “A Book in Every Home and Then Some”  and accessible selections from Neuman’s co-authored article in Reading Research Quarterly: Access to Print in Low-Income and Middle-Income Communities: An Ecological Study of Four Neighborhoods . Invite your students to consider how they might learn more about how books are made available in socio-economically diverse communities. What role do libraries play? What else might be done to ensure greater equity in access to books?
“We Need Diverse Books.” Lewis Michaux is described by his great niece as a “pioneer in bringing diverse books to the forefront.” Invite your students to participate in the discussion generated by the We Need Diverse Books movement sparked by the poignant Opinion pieces authored by Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers. With the cooperation of your local school or public libraries, engage students in an assessment of the range of diversity found in the book that are available to them. Ask your students to articulate why “we need diverse books” and, if appropriate, find a way to advocate for greater access to books that represent diverse experiences.
Duet Model: Dave the Potter and Lewis Micheaux. Read The Book Itchalongside Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill in a Duet Model (see our Teaching with Text Sets entry). The comparison of these two books offers an opportunity for conversation across time periods about literacy, advocacy, and freedom. Both men strongly believed in the power of the written word as a tool for expression, advocacy, and liberation, yet they were living very different historical and social experiences. What freedoms did Lewis Micheaux have that Dave, in slavery, did not? What freedoms were denied to Lewis Micheaux for which he was advocating during the Civil Rights Movement? What freedoms are still not universally available today?
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Vaunda Michaux Nelson: The Brown Bookshelf
The Horn Book: Five Questions for Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Vaunda Micheaux and R. Gregory Christie: Horn Book Awards.
Mind the Gaps: Books for All Young Readers
Christopher Myers on Diverse Books: Young Dreamers
Walter Dean Myers: Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?
Christopher Myers: The Apartheid of Children’s Literature
We Need Diverse Books
New York Historical Society: Vergara’s Harlem
New York Public Library: Harlem 1900-1940
Reading Rockets: Quotable Reading Quotes
New York Times: A Book in Every Home and Then Some
Neuman & Celano: Reading Research Quarterly Article: Access to Books
Hill, L.C. (2004). Harlem stomp!: a cultural history of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Little Brown & Company.
Hill, L.C. (2010). Dave the potter: Artist, Poet, Slave. Ill. by B. Collier. New York: Little Brown & Company.
Myers, W.D. (2004). Here in Harlem: Poems in many voices. New York: Holiday House.
Myers, W.D. (2000). Malcom X: A fire burning brightly. Illus. by L. Jenkins. New York: HarperCollins.
Myers, W.D. (1997). Harlem: A poem. Illus. by C. Myers. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Nelson, V.M. (2012). No crystal stair: A documentary novel of the life and work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem bookseller. Illus. by R. Gregory Christie. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrohoda.
Ringgold, F. (2015). Harlem Renaissance party. New York: Amistad.
Taylor, D.A. (2004). Sweet music in Harlem. Illus. by F. Morrison. New York: Lee & Low.
Weatherford, C.B. (2104). Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood. New York: Albert Whitman.

Erika Thulin Dawes About Erika Thulin Dawes

Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.


  1. Harlem's Little Blackbird by Renee Watson is another picture book that would fit. It's a biography of Florence Mills, an important Harlem Renaissance performer.

  2. I'm going to be reviewing this book on Two Writing Teachers next month. I'm going to link to your post since it's such an incredible resource for this important book!