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Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas

cox_elizabeth queen of the seasSince Brian Floca won the Caldecott last year for Locomotive, you can bet this year’s committee will be taking a look at his 2014 picture book.

Written by long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox, this is a factual account of a particularly incorrigible elephant seal and the Christchurch, New Zealand, community that eventually made way for her. Cox doesn’t say just when this happened, but possibly as early as 1975 (the date of her most famous New Zealand swim), which would explain the older-looking cars. We do know that she heard the story from Michael and Maggie, a young brother and sister, and subsequently consulted an elephant seal specialist for more specific information.

What really matters for us — and for the Caldecott committee — is how her text and Brian Floca’s illustrations work to tell the story.

This is a very charming picture book. Floca’s ink and watercolor illustrations have a light touch, with none of the spectacle of Locomotive‘s art. But why should we expect anything flashy? Elizabeth’s story is slighter and cozier than the epic story of the Transcontinental Railroad. The text here has a light tone, and it’s really up to Floca to give Elizabeth her somewhat cheeky personality.

In case you’re not familiar with this book, it’s about an elephant seal — an animal that normally prefers the ocean — who swam up the Avon river in New Zealand and started showing up alongside a road in the city of Christchurch. When the seal decided that the middle of that road was an even better place to sun herself, people worried about accidents — either to the seal or to drivers — and tried three times to relocate her to the ocean, each time farther away. When she kept finding her way back (the last time from hundreds of miles away), they decided to let her stay, putting up a sign:

SLOW
ELEPHANT SEAL
CROSSING

Cox’s text is factual, with its only fanciful riffs coming from young Michael, who looks for Elizabeth every day and imagines that her two snorts are a greeting to him. Because of Floca’s illustrations, we do not doubt Michael’s interpretation.

One thing I like very much is Floca’s choice (or perhaps the designer’s) to punctuate key moments in the story with hand-lettering. We first see this when the people of Christchurch decide that her regal nature deserves a regal name, christening her (in large cursive text) “Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas.” The same writing is used when Michael calls to Elizabeth and when he greets her after a long journey: “Elizabeth! You’re home!”

I particularly like Cox’s decision to end the book with a speculative section imagining what it might have been like for Elizabeth to return home that last time after such a long swim. Cox imagines her swimming and swimming through day and night, and this is where Floca’s art becomes transcendent. There’s a particular moonlit spread that is quiet but full of emotion, with dark trees looming on the bank and a light yellow moon-colored wake showing where Elizabeth is swimming.

The text and art match each other in tone throughout, but compared to the other books up for the Award this year, do you think this one is distinguished enough for the committee to honor it?

 

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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Comments

  1. The moonlit spread you describe is one of the finest picture book drawings I’ve seen.

  2. “Since Brian Floca won the Caldecott last year for Locomotive, you can bet this year’s committee will be taking a look at his 2014 picture book.”

    Lolly, that may be the reason they DON’T take a serious look at it, though it has been explained ample times here that voters do not consciously gauge a book’s artistic and worthiness by the number of times an author has won or how recent said artist has been awarded. The bottom line is that this is a beautiful book, identifiable as Floca through and through, but in the service of a moving and irresistible story. In addition to the moonlit spread you (and then Sergio in corroboration) rightly mention, I’ll add the two double pagers of the seals on the sand and the willow tress as particularly striking, by all in all this is terrific stuff, and certainly does not deserve to be overlooked because of last year’s big win. Completely agree with you on the employment of the hand lettering.

    Just a lovely review for a lovely book.

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