The human capacity to garble a first name, even a simple or common one, is without limit. I should know. My name is Elizabeth. My preferred nickname is “Betsy”, which is not intuitive. Generally speaking, one should never assume what another person’s nickname is. In my day I have shouldered countless calls of “Liz”, more than one “Betty”, and the occasional (and unforgivable) “Eliza”. Still, my heart goes out to kids with fresh and original names that get mangled in the garbled mouths of well-meaning adults. For them, the name “Elizabeth” may seem simple in comparison. Yet as My Name Is Elizabeth! makes clear from the get-go, there is no name so simple that someone can’t butcher it in some manner.
Elizabeth loves her name. Who wouldn’t? It has a lot of advantages, like length and how it sounds when you work the syllables out of your mouth. The downside? Everyone just gives you whatever nickname they think suits you. If it’s not Lizzy then it’s Beth. If it’s not Liz then it’s something “Not. Even. Close.” like Betsy. At last Elizabeth can take it no longer. To the general world she declares her full name (“Elizabeth Alfreda Roxanne Carmelita Bluebell Jones”) or Elizabeth if you like. Finally, everyone gets it right. Even her little brother (though she might bend the rules a bit for his attempted “Wizabef”).
One has to assume that any author with the first name “Annika” would know from whence she speaks with a book like this. Kids don’t have much to call their own when they’re young. Their clothes and toys are purchased by their parents and can be changed and taken away at any moment. Their names, however, are their own. Some of them realize early on that these names have power, and that they themselves have power over those names. They can insist that they be called one thing or another. They cannot make anyone actually obey these requests, but they can try, doggone it. A lot of kids fantasize about changing their names, but Elizabeth embraces her name. Her beef with nicknames wins you over because there is something inherently jarring about being given the wrong label. We are inclined to become our names, even when we don’t want to.
This story contains a tiny cry for independence by a character that is insistent without being bratty. In the end, Elizabeth proves to be a grand role model for those kids. She’s precocious without being insufferable (a rare trait in a picture book heroine). I like the lesson she teaches kids here too. It’s easy to let the world make assumptions about you and walk all over you. And it’s particularly hard to stand up to people when they are wrong but well meaning. You might be inclined to let their mistakes go and not raise a fuss, but when you claim your own name you claim how the world sees you. This book highlights a small battle that any kid can relate to.
The two-color picture book is not unheard of these days but it is less common that it was back in the days of books like Blueberries for Sal. Illustrator Matthew Forsythe has seen fit to use a novel pairing of tones for this title: bright orange and sky blue. I admit that I’ve never seen a picture book play with this particular combination before. The blue fills all the negative spaces in the story, appearing as the space between books on a bookshelf or the underside of a step. The orange affects everything else of note, leaving the standard black ink to fit in all the details that need to pop. Forsythe uses a combination of pen and ink, gouache and digital artwork to create his images. The digital aspects are not readily apparent, mind you, since the man’s style has a hand-drawn quality to it. I was particularly pleased to see how the artist broke up his images. You might have a florid sequence on one page with Elizabeth feeding her duck within a flowered border and then a wordless six part illustrated sequence of the girl pronouncing parts of her name in a variety of different situations on the next. It keeps things interesting.
With a book of this sort there is a fear that the primary audience for this title will be little girls named Elizabeth with upcoming birthdays or other gift giving occasions. Worse, some adults might think to buy it and then change their minds after considering that the Elizabeths they know actually do go by one nickname or another. Hopefully these purchasers will prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Personally I would like to see this book plucked up by the same folks that bought Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes and other name-related fare. This isn’t just a book about one particular name. It’s about making it clear to the world who you really are. A lesson some grown-ups could stand to learn as well.
On shelves September 1st.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus.
Misc: Get a glimpse of Matthew Forsythe’s desk as he worked on this book.