Gullible, jumpy Elijah was the first free child born in Buxton, a Canadian town settled by former slaves. He has a reputation for being “fra-gile” and wants to be brave–but it’s not easy when most people know him as the baby who did something unmentionable during a visit from Frederick Douglass. Elijah tries hard to grow up, and even manages to keep the tears in at certain times. He’s feeling quite proud of his courage until the real test comes, a catastrophe that forces him to venture into America, where he finally sees what his parents have run from, and the life he could have led without the sanctuary of Buxton.
What made this O’Dell winner work is that it doesn’t feel Historical. The events on the Underground Railroad, though necessary, take up a tiny chunk of the book. Most of the story takes place in Buxton, and so much of Elijah’s life–playing practical jokes, fishing in the woods, sneaking off to the town carnival–carries across all cultures and time periods. Yes, there is historical context, and awkward generation gap moments unique to Elijah’s story. It’s hard not to squirm when Elijah and his friends run off to play slavers and abolitionists just minutes after hearing his mother recall her harrowing escape to Canada. But these moments, while grounding the book in its setting, never weighed it down. They’re nicely balanced by Elijah’s bumbling, often hilarious attempts to understand adults, like the time he and his friend mistake the words “familiarity breeds contempt” for “family breeding contest.” Elijah of Buxton is not a book “for” minorities or about slavery–it’s a middle grade book, pure and simple. It’s a perfect choice from the O’Dell committee, and a great example of what Christopher Myers meant when he wrote about the responsibility of offering “more than slain civil rights leaders and escaped slaves, people whose lives are steeped in violence both literal and figurative…I want to give my readers spaceships, clowns, and unicorns, to depict whole human beings, to allow the children in my books to have the childhoods they ought to have, where surely there are lessons and context and history, but there is also fantasy and giggling and play.”