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Review of the Day: My Name Is Elizabeth by Annika Dunklee

My Name Is Elizabeth
By Annika Dunklee
Illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
Kids Can Press
ISBN: 978-1-55453-560-6
Ages 4-8
On shelves September 1, 2011

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.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Having had LOTS of trouble with adults mangling my name all my life, I love the sound of this book!

  2. Betsy, there’s a little girl named Elizabeth in one of the Anne of Green Gables books. She’s different Elizabeth nicknames depending on her mood for the day, but there’s one nickname that she will never be. Do you remember which one it is? She’s the little girl who lives with the cross old lady and visits Anne to get a glass of milk.

  3. Genevieve says:

    Jennifer, the one nickname that Little Elizabeth will never be is Lizzie. She can never feel like Lizzie. “Who could?” said Miss Shirley.

    Then when Anne goes somewhere (home for the summer?), Little Elizabeth says she’ll feel like Lizzie all the time while Anne is away. Anne tells her there is no such person as Lizzie in her.

    That much I remembered. I looked it up for the rest:
    ‘And this is Elizabeth?’ I said.
    ‘Not tonight,’ she answered gravely. ‘This is my night for being Betty because I love everything in the world tonight. I was Elizabeth last night and tomorrow I’ll prob’ly be Beth. It all depends on how I feel.’
    There was the touch of the kindred spirit for you. I thrilled to it at once.
    ‘How very nice to have a name you can change so easily and still feel it’s your own.’
    Little Elizabeth nodded.
    ‘I can make so many names out of it. Elsie and Betty and Bess and Eliza and Lisbeth and Beth . . . But not Lizzie. I can never feel like Lizzie.’
    ‘Who could?’ I said.

    and later in the story:

    ‘She was Beth that night . . . it is only when she is Beth that she will talk of her father. When she is Betty she makes faces at her grandmother and The Woman behind their backs; but when she turns into Elsie she is sorry for it and thinks she ought to confess, but is scared to. Very rarely is she Elizabeth, and then she has the face of one who listens to fairy music and knows what roses and clovers talk about.’

  4. You’d think with a name as short and simple as Jane, no one could mangle it. But I have had Jan/Jayne/Janie/Janey/Jane-the-Brain/Jane-the-insane. And in college three cards from would-be suitors exclaiming, “Me, Tarzan, You Jane.” (No Dear Reader, I married none of them.)

    However, I always wanted to be Elizabeth. And while that never happened, my mother-in-law and step-mother-in-law were both named Elizabeth, my daughter’s middle name is Elsabet, and I have a daughter-in-law Elizabeth known as Betsy.


    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      And these comments, should think, prove to me how my commenters are the best in the children’s literary blogosphere. Bar none.

  5. Thank you, Genevieve! That was driving me crazy. Sweet Elizabeth. Now, I want to go back and reread the Anne books. It’s been some time.

    Another Elizabeth nickname: Queen Elizabeth II’s childhood nickname was Lilibet. I believe that was Princess Margaret’s pronunciation.

  6. As another Jane I too have been amazed at the inevitable ways that Jane could be mangled –including being called after city bus along the city’s Jane St.
    I however always longed to be an Emma .. could you mess that up?

  7. dotdotdot says:

    I know another blue and orange combo!