Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Of Celebrating Elephant Seals, Caldecott Winners and Birthdays

As teacher librarian at Charlevoix Elementary School I had the pleasure of working with an outstanding educator named Sara Jonker.   Sara frequented the library on a regular basis, her love of books and reading obvious.  She often talked about her brother-in-law, a teacher librarian in another district downstate.

When I began seriously blogging in the summer of 2010, I searched for other blogs to read on a daily basis.  One of the blogs I selected was that of Sara's brother-in-law, Travis Jonker.  At 100 Scope Notes (which has since relocated under the umbrella of School Library Journal) readers can always be sure of insightful, candid, witty and worthwhile commentary on the world of children's literature.  Travis sees details others might miss.

Last year Travis was one of the members of the 2014 Caldecott Award committee. Tomorrow evening he and hundreds of others will be in attendance at the Newbery-Caldecott Banquet during the annual American Library Association conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Everyone will cheer for the medalists and honorees, but Travis will have the unique distinction of being one of the people who chose Locomotive written and illustrated by Brian Floca as the medalist, Journey written and illustrated by Aaron Beck as an honoree, Flora and the Flamingo written and illustrated by Molly Idle as an honoree, and Mr. Wuffles! written and illustrated by David Wiesner as an honoree.

Today is Travis Jonker's birthday.  I am sending him sincerest wishes for one of the best birthdays ever and, of course, many, many more.  To help him celebrate the day I am reviewing one of the newly illustrated books by Brian Floca which was released last month.

Quirks of nature, those things which defy explanation, make for the best stories, especially when they are true.  When animals choose to place themselves closer to humans, rather than remain in their normal habitat, it is newsworthy.  More than twenty years ago, an elephant seal decided to make the waters of Christchurch, New Zealand her residence.  Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas (Schwartz & Wade, an imprint of Random House Children's Books) written by Lynne Cox with illustrations by Brian Floca is her story.

There was once a lovely elephant seal who lived in the city.  

If you were to visit Christchurch, New Zealand, you would see the Avon River moving beautifully on the west side of the city; a small portion of land separating it from the southern Pacific Ocean.  Elizabeth, as she was named by the city residents, made this river her home.  You could see her floating along in the water, resting on the shore and covering herself with mud to keep cool.

Every day on his way to and from school, a boy named Michael would seek out Elizabeth calling her by name if he saw her.  She in turn would give him a glance before snorting.  On one particular morning the friendly seal felt the need to bask in the sun on the warm two-lane road.  As you can imagine after several near collisions Elizabeth moved her considerable bulk, twelve hundred pounds, back to the river.

This became the talk of the town; causing worry for Elizabeth and motorists.  It was decided to tow her far away down the river, out to sea and away from harm.  Michael, on his way to school, was not happy to see this.

Elizabeth was not content in the company of other elephant seals on the crowded ocean beach.  Making her way across the ocean and into the familiar river, Elizabeth once more could be seen sunning herself on the city street.  Joyfully, Michael greeted her.

Not once, but twice more this lovable, determined elephant seal was towed farther and farther away.  Each time she returned to what she knew as home.  Each time Michael and the people of the city welcomed her.  What they finally did was visible proof of their affection.

In her debut children's book, author and internationally recognized long distance swimmer, Lynne Cox writes with skill and the sure knowledge she has a story people will want to hear.  In an introductory author's note she explains how two children told her the tale which she has now passed on to her readers.  Empathy, an understanding, for Elizabeth is generated in her narrative.  Use of repetitive phrases at the beginning and end and each time Michael sees the elephant seal, bind us to this fascinating account.  Here is a portion of the passage where Cox explains how Elizabeth got her name.

...  She was eight feet long--as long as a surfboard---and she weighed twelve hundred pounds---as much as fifteen Labrador retrievers.  The people of Christchurch knew there was something very special about her.  ...

Using pen-and-ink and watercolor throughout, Brian Floca endears us to Elizabeth instantly on the dust jacket and book case; looking directly at us on the front as she comes up for air and gliding by on the Avon River on the back.  The same meticulous care we see in any Floca illustration is apparent in this title.  His depiction of Elizabeth is realistic in its details of her physical characteristics; the eyes, shape of the mouth, tiny hairs above her eyes and whiskers.

His color palette is a reflection of the natural world---blues, greens and yellows prominent on each page.  There is a lightness and golden quality to the pictures; enhancing the heartwarming tone of Cox's writing.  Elizabeth is featured in the center of a blue green sea with a cloud-filled sky above her on the opening and closing endpapers.  Seagulls and a small map of New Zealand decorate the verso page.

Beginning with a gorgeous two page spread of Elizabeth in the Avon River, highlighting the city activity along both banks, Floca alters his illustration sizes with each page turn.  Smaller insets with loose, rounded borders, edge to edge full pages and more breathtaking double page visuals persuade readers to pause and pace themselves.  One of my many favorite pictures is of Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas returning for the final time to the river, citizens lining the bridge as she passes beneath it.  It portrays the pure joy felt by everyone.

You cannot read Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox with illustrations by Brian Floca without feeling the happiness of this true story.  It's a wonderful book to share with children and students who may know nothing about elephant seals, New Zealand or this particular story.  I am thankful to both Lynne Cox and Brian Floca for bringing this to our attention in their delightful collaboration.  I think this would pair nicely with another nonfiction book, Wild Animal Neighbors: Sharing Our Urban World (Twenty-First Century Books, a division of Lerner Publishing Group Inc., August 1, 2013) by Ann Downer.

Please follow the links embedded in Lynne Cox's and Brian Floca's names to access their websites.  Here is a link to an interview of Lynne Cox at Watch. Connect. Read., the blog hosted by teacher librarian John Schumacher.  Julie Danielson features Brian Floca, including many images from this book during his illustrative process, on her blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Here is the link to an article about Elizabeth, Memories of Avon River's sea elephant you can find when searching on the Internet.  This link will take you to the publisher's website where you can see several pages inside the book.

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