Monday, January 21, 2008

ELIJAH OF BUXTON (Genre: Young Adult/Historical Fiction / module 1)

Bibliographic Information:
Title: Elijah of Buxton
Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication Date: August 2007
ISBN: 9780439023443

Plot Summary:
Elijah is the first generation of free-born members of his family. Escaping the oppression of the pre-Emancipation Proclamation and pre-Civil War torn United States, Elijah's family escaped to an established free-black community in Canada. The book focuses on events in Elijah's life - attending school, doing chores, fishing, and playing with his friends. Elijah experiences growing up free in a settlement of former and escaped slaves and he is just beginning to understand what that means when the local "preacher" steals money that is being saved to purchase the freedom of others trapped in the U.S. Elijah embarks on a mission to return the funds to their rightful owners and crosses into the prejudice ridden United States.

Critical Analysis:

From the author of Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 comes another award winning novel describing the trials and tribulations of young Elijah, a freed slave who lives in a free-black community in Canada in 1859. Elijah is known as the baby who threw up on famous African American and former slave, Frederick Douglass, and he carries with him throughout the novel a view of the importance of himself and his people.

In this pre-Emancipation era, freedom is cherished. Every slave who makes it to Buxton is greeted by the tolling of the Liberty Bell atop the schoolhouse, repeated 20 times. Buxton, Ontario, Canada was an actual stop along the Underground Railroad and was founded as a community for freed or runaway slaves by an abolitionist.

This book takes a candid, yet fictitious, look at the every day life and events of a twelve year old child. Elijah attends school but his teacher is also the Sunday school teacher so in the words of Elijah, "the man is on you like a tick." (p. 78) Elijah struggles with growing up; his mother claims he is fra-gile but as Elijah has experiences including revealing the death of another member of the community's husband, Elijah believes he is growing up and becoming less fra-gile; his mother acknowledges his maturation, "What you done was real growned, son!" (p. 200)

However Elijah is also young and he makes the mistakes of youth. When describing a situation in which the schoolteacher attempted to explain the saying familiarity breeds contempt, Elijah slips into the vernacular of the day and calls himself and his classmates "little nigg-"
(p.96) although his parents have taught him that it is a word of hatred and a sign of ignorance. Although the lesson didn't stick when the schoolteacher attempted to teach the students about respecting one's elders, when Elijah uses this term around Mr. Leroy, Elijah learns the lesson and it sticks. Mr. Leroy belts Elijah and then explains, "You think it ain't choke up with the same kind of hate and disrespect it has when they say it? You caint see it be even worst when you call it out?" (p. 99) I found this particular chapter to be very interesting especially in light of recent events regarding this same word and local schools. I think that the author would argue that Mr. Leroy's argument is his own - the word that is derogatory is even more hateful than when another says it. I am very tempted to read aloud this chapter and the previous to demonstrate just that fact to students or patrons.

Finally Elijah is faced with a coming of age issue when Mr. Leroy kidnaps him, taking him to Detroit in an attempt to catch up with the Preacher who has stolen several thousand dollars earmarked for the purchase of Mr. Leroy's family's freedom. The Preacher shoots the accompanying Buxton man who is supposed to protect the money and gambles it, but Mr. Leroy and Elijah track the Preacher down. Mr. Leroy dies of a heart attack and Elijah is faced with continuing on and finding the Preacher. Elijah does find Preacher, but he also discovers a family of chained, escaped slaves, one named Mrs. Chloe who laughs upon discovering she is but one hour from freedom in Canada. Elijah leaves Mrs. Chloe, her husband, Kamau, their daughter Hope, and two other slaves and attempts to get help from others but there is none. Elijah almost returns to Buxton alone, but he feels compelled to attempt to help Mrs. Chloe and he returns to her and the others in the barn. At that moment, Elijah tries to read the situation as an adult would, "I took anotehr deep breath so there waren't gonna be no backing off from talking growned, which when you look at it seems to be a powerful lot like lying." (p. 331)

At the end of the book appears a two page summary of information about Buxton and the site that the author visited. He encourages readers to visit this location, with its hidden Liberty bell (that was enclosed in a bell tower when the Buxton church was sold) and it history and to open a discussion about these events. If I ever get the chance, I believe I will visit Buxton and see history come to life!

Editorial Reviews:
From Barnes & Noble
As a first-generation freeborn black, 11-year-old Elijah Buxton had no direct experience with slavery. That changes, however, when a thief steals money set aside for freeing a friend's enslaved family. Elijah sets off rapidly in pursuit, leaving behind his Canadian home and crossing into dangerous American territory, where he encounters terrifying evidence of the grievous human cost of slavery. History is made palpable in this novel by Newbery Medal winner Christopher Paul Curtis.

The New York Times - Bruno Navasky
Floating up like a bubble through layers of history, buoyed with hope and comic energy…Elijah of Buxton tells the story of Elijah Freeman, the first freeborn child in the historic Elgin Settlement, a village of escaped slaves in Canada…As in his previous novels, Curtis is a master at balancing the serious and the lighthearted: as Langston Hughes said of the blues, "not softened with tears, but hardened with laughter." He has already received a Newbery medal and an honor for two novels rooted in the experience of black Americans: "The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 and Bud, Not Buddy. His latest book is another natural award candidate and makes an excellent case, in a story positively brimming with both truth and sense, for the ability of historical fiction to bring history to life.

Publishers Weekly
Elijah Freeman, 11, has two claims to fame. He was the first child "born free" to former slaves in Buxton, a (real) haven established in 1849 in Canada by an American abolitionist. The rest of his celebrity, Elijah reports in his folksy vernacular, stems from a "tragical" event. When Frederick Douglass, the "famousest, smartest man who ever escaped from slavery," visited Buxton, he held baby Elijah aloft, declaring him a "shining bacon of light and hope," tossing him up and down until the jostled baby threw up-on Douglass. The arresting historical setting and physical comedy signal classic Curtis (Bud, Not Buddy), but while Elijah's boyish voice represents the Newbery Medalist at his finest, the story unspools at so leisurely a pace that kids might easily lose interest. Readers meet Buxton's citizens, people who have known great cruelty and yet are uncommonly polite and welcoming to strangers. Humor abounds: Elijah's best friend puzzles over the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" and decides it's about sexual reproduction. There's a rapscallion of a villain in the Right Reverend Deacon Doctor Zephariah Connerly the Third, a smart-talking preacher no one trusts, and, after 200 pages, a riveting plot: Zephariah makes off with a fortune meant to buy a family of slaves their freedom. Curtis brings the story full-circle, demonstrating how Elijah the "fra-gile" child has become sturdy, capable of stealing across the border in pursuit of the crooked preacher, and strong enough to withstand a confrontation with the horrors of slavery. The powerful ending is violent and unsettling, yet also manages to be uplifting. Ages 9-12. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Children's Literature
Christopher Paul Curtis knows how to write characters so engaging and believable you want to meet them in person. In fact, after reading his books, you feel like you have. From the author of award winners, The Watsons go to Birmingham 1963 and Bud, not Buddy, comes another novel with heart and meaning wrapped in rollicking humor. Readers will slip into the story as they, along with eleven-year-old Elijah, assume a life of freedom, but this is the 1850's and slavery still exists in America, alarmingly close to the freed slave community of Buxton, Canada. Helping people escape from slavery is a deadly business, hardly a task for the fragile Elijah. His claim to fame is being the nervous baby who threw up on Frederick Douglas. He is scared to death of snakes and is taken in by a colorful con-artist called the Preacher, but the kid has heart, a sense of responsibility, and a feeling of what is right and wrong. He witnesses death and learns grisly truths, including the idea that giving up a child for the sake of freedom may well be the greatest gift. Elijah's heroism is believable, growing from almost accidental, to faltering, to determined, albeit limited, saving one tiny soul rather than a whole group, which is all that can be expected of a child. Indeed, giving a child the opportunity to learn the horrors of the past but understand the hope of the future is the most we can ask of a character—and of an author.

Kirkus Reviews
Eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman is known for two things: being the first child born free in Buxton, Canada, and throwing up on the great Frederick Douglass. It's 1859, in Buxton, a settlement for slaves making it to freedom in Canada, a setting so thoroughly evoked, with characters so real, that readers will live the story, not just read it. This is not a zip-ahead-and-see-what-happens-next novel. It's for settling into and savoring the rich, masterful storytelling, for getting to know Elijah, Cooter and the Preacher, for laughing at stories of hoop snakes, toady-frogs and fish-head chunking and crying when Leroy finally gets money to buy back his wife and children, but has the money stolen. Then Elijah journeys to America and risks his life to do what's right. This is Curtis's best novel yet, and no doubt many readers, young and old, will finish and say, "This is one of the best books I have ever read." (author's note) (Fiction. 9+)

-Read the chapters 6 and 7 aloud and have students discuss what "familiarity breeds contempt" means to them and to the characters in the novel. Also discuss the power of words.

- Use this novel in conjunction with other Underground Railroad stories to discuss the motivation and accomplishment that occurred in assisting slaves to escape.

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (Genre: Poetry / module 1)

Bibliographic Information
Title: Where the Sidewalk Ends
Author: Shel Silverstein
Illustrator: Shel Silverstein
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: November 1974
ISBN: 9780060256678

Plot Summary:
A collection of silly, humorous, and thought-provoking poems for the young and the young at heart. These poems include every day problems such as "Sick" which features a young child who suffers from nearly every malady known to man until she discovers that it is Saturday and there is no school - suddenly cured, the young lady informs her mother she is going outside to play; "Ma and God" in which a child bemoans the gifts of God that are thwarted by a mother; visual poetry including a poem written on the neck of a giraffe; "For Sale" in which an older brother tries to sell his younger sister; and "Dreadful" which tells the unfortunate tale of a baby who has been consumed by some unknown individual.

Critical Analysis:
I admit it. I am a Shel Silverstein addict. I own all of his children's poetry books, and I have an extensive collection of Silverstein reading his own poetry. Heck, I even own the lesser known, more adult musical selections as well. Warning: to those who would do an author study on Shel Silverstein - he wrote songs for Johnny Cash (A Boy Named Sue), Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show (Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most, I Got Stoned and I Missed It, and Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball among others), and has often been featured for some of his more electic works on the Dr. Demento Show; make sure that websites that you are visiting with students have been previewed for content and material and listen to any audio files - don't trust that because it says "Shel Silverstein" that it is appropriate for younger audiences.

I love Silverstein's twisted look at the world through the eyes of a child. His poems brought me joy as a youngster and I have used them in the classroom to teach a variety of lessons. For example, Silverstein's take on experimentation is discussed in his poem "Stone Telling" (p. 147):

How do we tell if a window is open?

Just throw a stone at it.

Does it make a noise?

It doesn't?

Well, it was open.

Now, let's try another ...


It wasn't!

I particularly love the audio of Silverstein reading this poem (click here to listen) because you can hear the joy and laughter as he thinks about the idea of throwing a rock at a window to see if it is open.

Silverstein's point of view on personal hygiene is another example of how adults can speak to children and how children can twist the lesson into someting else entirely. "Warning" is a poem that directly speaks to the taboo of nose picking. Silverstein uses the common adult threat that something will bite a finger if a child sticks it in his nose and creates a whole new animal, both literally and figuratively:

Inside everybody's nose

There lives a sharp-toothed snail.

So if you stick your finger in,

He may bite off your nail.

Stick it farther up inseide,

And he may bite your ring off.

Stick it all the way, and he

May bite the whole darn thing off. (p. 75)

Silverstein continues to appeal to audiences both young and old because his topics are timeless, his poetry is both irrereverent and respectful, and his illustrations add to the color, concept, and development of his writing.

Editorial Reviews:
BfK (Books for Keeps No. 144, January 2004)
These two collections by Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, were first published in 1974 and 1981 and they have more than withstood the test of time. Silverstein believed in the symbiotic nature of word and image and would not allow his verse to be illustrated by anyone else; reading these collections tells you why. The relationship between illustration and poem makes these books very special. His black and white drawings echo and complement the poems which can be funny, cautionary, serious and sometimes surreal. Silverstein's subjects and thoughts are everything and everyone under the sun, plus a few more. There's the 'Skin Stealer': 'This evening I unzipped my skin / And carefully unscrewed my head, / Exactly as I always do / When I prepare myself for bed.' There's the baby bat who 'screamed out in fright, / Turn on the dark, / I'm afraid of the light.' But, there is also the place 'Where the Sidewalk Ends' 'And before the street begins, / And there the grass grows soft and white, / And there the sun burns crimson bright, / And there the moon-bird rests from his flight / To cool in the peppermint wind.' One, and preferably both, of these poetry books should be part of the canon of children's poetry. Category: 8-10 Junior/Middle. Rating: ****. ...., Marion Boyars Publishers, 176pp; Poetry, D9.99 each hbk. Ages 8 to 10.

- Use "Sick" as part of a lesson identifying the various parts of the body

- Use "Helping" to discuss how people can help or not help one another

- Use "Smart" to discuss the various values of money. Did the child win or lose in the end by making those exchanges?

- Use in conjunction with the audio recordings to discuss changes between the print and recorded versions of poems such as "Warning."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

LIBRARY LION (Genre: Picture Book/ module 1)

Bibliographic Data
Title: Library Lion
Author: Michelle Knudsen
Illustrator: Kevin Hawkes
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Publication Date: July 25, 2006
ISBN: 978-0763622626

Plot Summary:
A lion wanders into a library and listens to story hour. When it ends, the lion expresses his displeasure by roaring loudly only to be reminded that library users must be quiet in the library. Upon promising to keep his voice low, the lion returns each day to story hour, assisting librarians and patrons with general tasks. However, one day, the head librarian falls and sends the library lion for help. The poor lion is faced with the choice of breaking the rules or saving his friend.

Critical Analysis:
I absolutely loved this book. First the story is enchanting. My four year old son asked for it be read aloud multiple times. The concept of a lion wandering into the library (rather than just sitting as a statue outside) was appealing. Additionally, I appreciated that the text accepts this unusual event and incorporates a different individual into its every day processes - despite the protests of Mr. McBee.

Second, I was completely entranced (as was my four year old) by the acrylic and pen illustrations. While I initially thought that these had been done in watercolors, I made certain to read the Library of Congress information which explained the process choice for these wonderful and engaging pictures. I was even inspired to go to Kevin Hawkes website to determine if he offered more information on his medium choices. (He doesn't but he does take emails; if he responds to mine, I will post the response here.)

The story is simple, yet entertaining and it offers in a very comprehensible manner what rules are and why they should be followed. Additionally, it allows children the time to consider when breaking a rule or policy might be allowed (such as an emergency) and it would open up a dicussion for that topic even with the youngest of children.

Editorial Review:
From School Library Journal
Starred Review. PreSchool-Grade 2–Miss Merriweather, head librarian and decorum-keeper, first meets Lion when he saunters past his stone counterparts and into the stacks. Scowling circulation assistant Mr. McBee seems intent on having the enormous cat ejected, but his boss declares that as long as he breaks no rules, he is welcome. The beast does misbehave though, roaring loud displeasure when storytime ends. At Miss Merriweather's reprimand, the contrite-looking lion promises to reform. In fact, he becomes something of a fixture in the building, dusting with his tail, licking envelopes, and serving as a stepstool for small patrons. Everyone appreciates him–except Mr. McBee. When Lion lets out another tremendous RAAAHHHRRR!, the man bursts into Miss Merriweather's office to snitch–and there he finds her in distress, having fallen from a stool and broken her arm. Lion, à la Lassie, has saved the day, but he is so chagrined by his own rule-breaking behavior that he doesn't return to the library. People miss him. Even Mr. McBee. A feel-good ending and a reminder that Sometimes, there is a good reason to break the rules bring the story to its most-satisfactory conclusion. Hawkes's deft acrylic-and-pencil pictures have appeal for generations of library lovers. They are rich with expression, movement, and detail. The lordly, lovable lion is a masterful mix–regal beast and furry friend–and the many human characters are drawn with animation and emotion. This winsome pairing of text and illustration is a natural for storytime and a first purchase for every collection.–Kathy Krasniewicz, Perrot Library, Old Greenwich, CT Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

PreS-Gr. 2. This story's appealing premise is clear in the first sentence: "One day, a lion came to the library." There's the expected uproar as the lion pads through the stacks, but librarian Miss Merriweather only asks: "Is he breaking any rules?" The lion is not, and so he is allowed to stay. He makes himself useful and enjoys story hour until Miss Merriweather falls and breaks her arm. The lion roars for help, but his noise prompts a scolding from an uptight, oblivious staff member. The story falters a bit as it explores messages about rules and exceptions in a way that feels both purposeful and a bit convoluted. The warm friendships will easily draw interest, though, as will the handsome, nostalgic pencil-and-acrylic illustrations. Children will easily see themselves in the wild lion, which yearns to explore and enjoy the library but worries about the constraining rules. A fine partner for other library tales, such as Judy Sierra's Wild about Books (2004) and Lauren Child's But Excuse Me That Is My Book (2006). Gillian Engberg

- Use in a lesson on appropriate library or classroom behavior at the beginning of the year.
- Use in a lesson for when it is "okay" to break the rules.
- Use in a lesson on acceptance of different individuals.