Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Historical fiction - Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Curtis, Christopher Paul. ELIJAH OF BUXTON.

Buxton was a town established for escaped slaves from the US, just across the border from Detroit. Elijah is the first free-born child in the town of Buxton in Canada. A well-loved only child, he is naïve, carefree, and innocent. He gets taken in by the cons of an adult known as Preacher, but when Preacher steals the money that another resident, Mr. Leroy, had saved to purchase his family out of slavery, Elijah goes on a journey that will force him to grow up fast. He and Mr. Leroy follow Preacher, but Mr. Leroy dies shortly after reaching the US. Elijah continues on his own after Preacher. He finds Preacher, but only after Preacher has been tortured and killed by some slavers. In the barn where the slavers left Preacher’s body, Elijah also finds some chained up slaves who steal the pistol Elijah carries. Elijah learns that they plan on shooting themselves rather than returning to slavery. As Elijah tries to make sense of this “secret…growned up language,” he finally understands what it means to be a slave, what it means to be free, and what it means to grow up. He takes the young baby of one of the chained slaves with the mother’s blessing, and returns to Buxton with the baby to give her to a woman who lost her child and consequently became “touched in the head.” At the end of the book, Elijah is carrying the child, Hope Too-mah-ee-nee, back to Buxton, and welcoming her to Canada and freedom.

In Mr. Curtis’s Author’s Note, he explains how Buxton was founded, why it succeeded where so many other towns like it failed, and tells us how we can get more information on Buxton by visiting the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum.

Awards and Honors:
  • Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2008 Winner Author United States
  • IODE (National Chapter of Canada) Violet Downey Book Award, 2008 Short-List Canada
  • Jane Addams Children's Book Award, 2008 Honor Book Books for Older Children United States
  • John Newbery Medal, 2008 Honor Book United States
  • NAACP Image Award, 2008 Nominee Outstanding Literary Work-Children United States
  • Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award, 2008 Shortlist Young Adult/Middle Reader Canada
  • Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2008 Winner United States
  • TD Canadian Children's Literature Award, 2008 Finalist Canada


Carolyn Phelan (Booklist, Sep. 1, 2007 (Vol. 104, No. 1))
Starred Review* After his mother rebukes him for screaming that hoop snakes have invaded Buxton, gullible 11-year-old Elijah confesses to readers that “there ain’t nothing in the world she wants more than for me to quit being so doggone fra-gile.” Inexperienced and prone to mistakes, yet kind, courageous, and understanding, Elijah has the distinction of being the first child born in the Buxton Settlement, which was founded in Ontario in 1849 as a haven for former slaves. Narrator Elijah tells an episodic story that builds a broad picture of Buxton’s residents before plunging into the dramatic events that take him out of Buxton and, quite possibly, out of his depth. In the author’s note, Curtis relates the difficulty of tackling the subject of slavery realistically through a child’s first-person perspective. Here, readers learn about conditions in slavery at a distance, though the horrors become increasingly apparent. Among the more memorable scenes are those in which Elijah meets escaped slaves—first, those who have made it to Canada and, later, those who have been retaken by slave catchers. Central to the story, these scenes show an emotional range and a subtlety unusual in children’s fiction. Many readers drawn to the book by humor will find themselves at times on the edges of their seats in suspense and, at other moments, moved to tears. A fine, original novel from a gifted storyteller.

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, Spring 2008)
Eleven-year-old Elijah is the first child to be born free in Buxton, a refuge for freed slaves established in 1849 in Canada. When a con man takes off with the funds Elijah's friend saved to buy his family out of slavery, the two pursue the thief across the border to Michigan. The book is an arresting, surprising novel of reluctant heroism.

Karen Coats (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, October 2007 (Vol. 61, No. 2))
Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is the first free-born child in Buxton, Canada, a community formed by Reverend William King in 1849 as a refuge for any slaves that could manage to make it there. The community has a strict set of rules and expectations, but that doesn’t stop the occasional snake from slithering his way in amongst the hard-working folk. The trouble is that naïve, good-hearted Elijah doesn’t recognize a snake when he walks on two legs: taken in by a con artist who calls himself the Preacher, Elijah narrowly escapes being sold to a traveling circus, though he really doesn’t seem to ever grasp his peril. When the Preacher steals all the money that another man has saved to buy his family out of slavery and crosses the border, Elijah feels obligated to go after him, since it was he who said that the Preacher could be trusted. Things go from bad to worse on his journey, and Elijah learns the hard way that the stories the escaped slaves tell are grounded in more horror than he can possibly imagine. Curtis’ storytelling style shines here; he establishes Elijah’s character through energetic first-person narration and fixes him in readers’ hearts through comic, sometimes even slapstick episodes. Only then does he open up the serious, at times horrific side of the story. Elijah spends a lot of time trying to figure out the ways of grown folk; in particular he tries to learn how to lie like a grownup, since that seems to him the way they get things done. This story does the best that children’s historical fiction about tragic times can do—it paints an unflinchingly honest picture of the past, while providing a glimmer of empowerment and hope through an engaging and resourceful hero. An author’s note with more information about the story and the Buxton settlement follows the text Review.

1. Have the students construct diorams of what they think Buxton looked like.
2. Reader's Theatre - Have the students break up into small groups and each act out a different episode in the book.
3. Discuss how prejudice is still present in our world, just not as obvious. Have any of your students ever expereinced prejudice?

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