Lynne Cox, the American record-setting long-distance swimmer, must have identified with the story of Elizabeth, an actual elephant seal who swam into the Avon River in Christchurch, New Zealand in the late 1970’s and decided to stay. The public loved her, and when she died of a viral infection in 1985 it was front page news.
Aided by Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Brian Floca’s watercolor-and-ink illustrations, Cox tells the story of Elizabeth through the voice of a small boy named Michael, who watched for the seal on his way to and from school.
Elizabeth loved to bask in the sun on the riverbank, and even once stretched out across the two-lane road by the river. She was hit by a car, but the car received more damage than the twelve-hundred-pound seal.
Nevertheless, residents worried about her safety, and decided to tow Elizabeth past the river and into the ocean. She was set free on a beach inhabited by a large group of elephant seals. Before long, however, she made her way back to her favorite sunbathing spot by the Avon.
The boat crew towed Elizabeth off again twice more, each time even farther away, but each time, Elizabeth came back, after what seemed like a long time:
“Michael watched the water,
and he wished upon the stars.
And then one warm summer morning, Elizabeth was back.
There in the water beneath the bridge was the
beautiful elephant seal who weighed as much as
fifteen Labrador retrievers.
‘Welcome home, Elizabeth!, Michael shouted.”
The people of Christchurch gave up their efforts to repatriate Elizabeth, and put up a sign on the street to protect her: “Slow. Elephant Seal Crossing.”
The book does not end with Elizabeth’s death (she died of a viral infection in 1985) but rather ends with the speculations of the townspeople about how and why Elizabeth kept managing to come back to them.
An afterword supplies more facts about elephant seals (but not about Elizabeth herself).
Floca’s lovely drawings colored in a warm palate of greens, blues, and yellows show a wide spectrum of emotions in both people and animals, and so successfully convey the beauty of the riverfront and surrounding park that one can well imagine its appeal.
Evaluation: This is a charming story that will delight readers of all ages.
Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, 2014