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Three stars for ELIZABETH, QUEEN OF THE SEAS

May 30, 2014

★ Floca, fresh from his Caldecott-winning Locomotive (2013), lends delicate sun-washed watercolors to this charming story of an unusual elephant seal. Cox, a long-distance swimmer best known for Grayson (2006), a nonfiction adult book about a whale, uses a light hand and a sweet, wondrous, yet unsentimental touch to relate how Elizabeth, fondly named by the townsfolk of Christchurch, New Zealand, prefers to reside in a warm river rather than the ocean. But when Elizabeth begins to sun herself on a busy asphalt road, she’s deemed a potential danger and taken out to live with her brethren at sea. Miraculously, Elizabeth manages to return to her preferred home in the shallow Avon, not once but three times, even though each time she’s transported further and further afield. Cox anchors the story by imagining a small boy, Michael, enjoying Elizabeth and always waiting for her reappearance. Based on a true story—there is a photo of the real Elizabeth in the illuminating afterword—this is superior addition to shelves featuring wild animal personalities. Floca manages to convey Elizabeth’s appeal by focusing on the way her expressive face plays off her tremendous bulk. Her content, happy smiles as she floats in a bucolic world of hazy riverbanks and blue skies will appeal to animal lovers of every age. – Booklist

★ It’s tempting to call this a true fish-out-of-water story, except the eponymous heroine is actually an elephant seal, and she doesn’t see herself as displaced when she parks herself across a two-lane road in Christchurch, New Zealand. “Maybe she liked the feel of the warm firmness under her belly,” writes long-distance swimmer Cox (Swimming to Antarctica), “or maybe it was the sunshine fanning out across her back. But whatever it was, she decided to stay.” After many failed attempts to transport Elizabeth (who weighs “as much as fifteen Labrador retrievers”) to safer, more seal-friendly ground, her adoring but concerned public finally reaches a rapprochement with this sweet-faced force of nature; a photo of the real Elizabeth sprawled in her favorite spot appears in the afterword. The low-key text is beautifully amplified by Floca’s visual narrative, which takes readers from the busy downtown to distant, misty shores. The newly minted Caldecott winner may be best known for his more encyclopedic works, but he proves that whether the subject is trains or stubborn seals, he’s a master storyteller.  - Publishers Weekly

★ Cox opens this fact-based story on just the right note: “There was once a lovely elephant seal who lived in the city.” A boy named Michael is fascinated with the marine mammal that chooses to live by or swim in the tranquil Avon River that passes by Christchurch’s botanical garden. When the seal, named after the Queen of England, narrowly avoids death after relaxing on a warm city street, residents volunteer to move her to an elephant seal colony. After she makes her way back, they try two additional times to relocate her. Finally, knowing that city dwellers were secretly happy to see Elizabeth return to Christchurch, the city erects a “Slow. Elephant Seal Crossing” sign near her favorite sleeping place. The author generally avoids anthropomorphizing Elizabeth’s motivation for continuing to return to the city by suggesting a few possibilities for readers to consider. Some basic facts about these huge marine mammals are woven into the highly approachable narrative, and a few paragraphs at the conclusion further explore more about their habits. A black-and-white photo of the famous seal sleeping on the pavement closes the book and reinforces its factual nature. Floca’s gentle pen-and-ink and watercolor paintings perfectly capture Elizabeth’s watery world. Double-page spreads nicely complement pages that feature smaller vignettes echoing the seal’s rounded body. Especially effective is a page where Michael, who after nearly three months without his friend, wishes on the stars reflected in the river’s water; the page turn reveals the seal’s head poking through radiating rings of water while the boy shouts, “Welcome home, Elizabeth!” Children are likely to request multiple readings of this compelling told and lovingly illustrated true story.–Ellen Fader, formerly at Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR – School Library Journal