As soon as this new picturebook title arrived at our branch, Joyce, our Library Assistant 3 who processes the children's books and generally makes my life as a librarian possible, put it face-out on the processing shelves so that its cover would call out to me as I passed by. Not only is it entitled, My Name Is Elizabeth, but it also has a picture of a little girl peaking out from under a crown the size of the St. Peter's Basilica dome, with a wee, crown-sporting chicken perched on top. I kid you not. Well, ok, it turns out the chicken is really a duck, but at first glance I was thunderstruck.
My Name is Elizabeth is a debut picturebook for both author Annika Dunklee and illustrator Matthew Forsythe. It was named a NY Times Notable Book of the Year in 2011, and the word "perfect" seems to have been thrown around a lot in its reviews. I would agree that this story of a child standing up for her right to be called by her proper name is pretty near flawless.
Elizabeth narrates this story emphatically, speaking loudly to the reader from her place at the center of the universe. This universe includes her Granddad, who seems to be her primary caretaker, a baby brother, and a pet duck. Elizabeth is very fond of her regal, nine-letter name, and sighs and cringes each time the well-intentioned people around her shorten it to “Lizzy” or “Liz” or (heaven forbid) “Betsy”. Only her steadfast duck companion seems to understand. In fact, when she finally reaches her limit and decides to harness her impressive powers of self-determination in defense of her name, she begins by taking her duck’s leash off, setting him free to stand side-by-side with her as she asserts her own freedom to be “Elizabeth”. It’s an exceedingly nice touch in a book filled with nice touches. Like the spread that shows “all the neat things” her mouth does when she says her own name. These six images include an illustration of her sitting in the sink while brushing her teeth, and one of her placing a crown on her duck’s head with her tongue between her teeth during the final “th” sound. This particular nice touch is also a funny, engaging way to invite a conversation with a child about the sounds letters make.
In the end, Elizabeth is rewarded for her assertiveness and moves happily through the world unfettered by constant cringing. She has made herself heard, and that’s what matters. Perfect diction, as it turns out, she can live without.
I love this book. Not surprisingly, I completely sympathize with Elizabeth, as will a multitude of readers who have had their names regularly dismantled and bungled up in one way or another. The illustrations are full of humor and nuanced characterization, and they are simply a pleasure to behold. For more of Forsythe’s work, look for his graphic novels, Ojingogo and Jinchalo.
My Name Is Elizabeth will be on the New Children’s Book shelves at the Charles Santore Library on Saturday, April 7th.