Lynn: Picture books featuring adorable animals are commonplace. Picture books about a real-life elephant seal who won the hearts of an entire town? Rare! In the author’s note, Cox, a famous long-distance swimmer, tells of first hearing the story of Elizabeth during a trip to New Zealand. She says she knew she would someday have to “pass Elizabeth’s story along.” Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas (Random/Schwartz & Wade 2014) is that story and Cox tells it wonderfully.
A huge elephant seal made her home in Avon River in Christchurch, NZ and the townspeople named her Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas. She swam in the river, basked and sunned on the banks – all 8 feet and twelve hundred pounds of her. Everyone loved Elizabeth and all was fine until she decided to sunbathe in the middle of the road. Everyone worried about Elizabeth causing accidents or getting hurt so a group of volunteers captured her and pulled her out to sea to a colony of elephant seals. Elizabeth came back. Two more attempts were made to relocate Elizabeth, each to more distant places but Elizabeth wasn’t having it. Months after the last attempt, she swam back up the Avon again. The people of Christchurch decided it was better to warn traffic than take Elizabeth away from her home.
Cox tells the story from the point of view of a little boy named Michael and very wisely doesn’t anthropomorphize Elizabeth.
“Maybe it was because the beach was too crowded and noisy, maybe she missed Christchurch, or maybe there was some other reason that we can never know, but Elizabeth chose not to stay.”
I loved this warm story of the endearing and determined Elizabeth and adored Brian Floca’s charming watercolor illustrations! Oh those illustrations! How do you draw an elephant seal??? But I’ll let Cindy talk about that.
Cindy: We are big fans of Floca’s 2014 Caldecott Medal winning Locomotive but his efforts here to bring Elizabeth to life are excellent, too. While we were at ALA this summer we heard him speak about the difficulty of bringing an elephant seal to life but we believe he hit the mark. Sometimes Elizabeth fills the double page spread and other times her soulful eyes peer into your own and win your heart. Young readers will be entranced by this animal and they can learn more on the fact page at the book’s close or by visiting one of the recommended websites. It’s easy to understand why Elizabeth might have fled back to the Avon river after listening to just one elephant seal at the National Geographic site. Play that for your students and then imagine what it would sound like to hear hundreds of them at one time! Okay, perhaps an elementary teacher would not be daunted by that kind of noise. 😉 Cox and Floca also include a black and white photo of the real Elizabeth on the edge of a street near busy traffic. Yikes. If you want to see another New Zealand elephant seal in action, check out this video. Homer, a male, is probably 3 times larger than Elizabeth, and these parked cars don’t stand a chance against him.