'Elijah of Buxton' tells of the lives of freed slaves

Newbury winner Christopher Paul Curtis's third novel: one of the year's best.

The Newbery Medal judges should just go ahead and put Christopher Paul Curtis on speed dial.

His first novel, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," was a Newbery Honor book. His second, "Bud, Not Buddy," took home the top honor. His newest, Elijah of Buxton, is even better. It is without question the most powerful children's book I've read all year. Frankly, it's one of the most powerful books I've read this year, period, and I average one a day.

Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is famous for two things: being the first child born into freedom in Buxton, Ontario, a settlement founded by former slaves in 1849, and for throwing up on Frederick Douglass as a baby. A sweet-natured boy with an aim so deadly that he fishes with rocks, not tackle, Elijah is also a little gullible. And, as his mother puts it, a little "fra-gile." But as the novel progresses, Elijah trades the naivete his parents fought so valiantly to give him for an equally hard-won heroism.

Curtis starts slowly. Elijah gives readers a guided tour around Buxton – plays a few practical jokes, tells a few tall tales, does his chores, and goes fishing. The circus comes to town. Then some runaway slaves make it safely to Buxton, and Curtis gets down to business.

The settlers at Buxton have a ritual welcome designed to help former slaves take what Douglass called "the hardest step" to freedom: the last one. I defy anyone not to tear up when Mr. Freeman asks, "What kept you?" (If you can do it when Elijah asks, your tear ducts must be missing.) The official greeter is a little girl, or as Elijah puts it, "that crying little brat, Emma Collins." "If a bunch of us went charging at 'em whooping and raising Cain they might disappear back into the forest for another two, three days. And that was two, three days that they were free but didn't know it...."

Writing about an evil as large as slavery in a way that is both honest and appropriate for children is about as simple as catching your supper with a pile of rocks, but Curtis makes the first look as effortless as his hero does the second. As in "Bud, Not Buddy," he piles on plenty of humor to leaven the hard stuff. Parents will want to consider the emotional maturity of their children, and I probably wouldn't give the book to anyone younger than 10. Unlike the deaths in "Harry Potter," you can't reassure them that it's "only a story."

Not that Curtis is interested in giving a lecture. (Although, he can definitely get his point across: For example, Chapter 7, "Mr. Leroy Shows How to Really Make a Lesson Stick" should be required reading for everyone making money off hip-hop.) As Elijah says, "classroom learning just don't work the same as when something happens to you personal." Curtis takes history and tragedy, filters it through his steady warmth and wit, and turns it into something deeply personal.

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