The Promise

About the Author and the Illustrator

Nicola Davies is an English zoologist and writer. She was one of the original presenters of the BBC children’s wildlife programme The Really Wild Show. Nicola has written many children’s books, both fiction and non-fiction. Her prose is lyrical, informative and she writes with great emotional depth and insight.

Laura Carlin is a graduate of the Royal College of Art and mainly works within the medium of drawing. Whilst studying for her MA, Laura won several awards including the Shelia Robinson Drawing Prize, the Quentin Blake Award two years running, and the 2004 National Magazine Award. She also received the Uniqlo Fashion Illustration Award in both 2003 and 2004 which enabled her to travel to Shanghai, China. As a commercial illustrator, Laura’s work has featured in publications such as Vogue, The New Scientist, The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Telegraph and The Independent. Since leaving the Royal College of Art, Laura teaches part time in a number of Universities and is currently part of a panel, initiated by Quentin Blake, which is in the process of setting up the world’s first illustration gallery in London.

About the Book

On a mean street in a mean city, a thief tries to snatch an old woman’s bag. But she finds she can’t have it without promising something in return – to ‘plant them all’. When it turns out the bag is full of acorns, the young thief embarks on a journey that changes her own life and the lives of others for generations to come. Inspired by the belief that a relationship with nature is essential to every human being, and that now, more than ever, we need to renew that relationship, The Promise is the story of a magical discovery that will touch the heart and imagination of every reader, young and old. With poignant simplicity, honesty and lyricism, Nicola Davies evokes a powerful vision of a world where people and nature live in harmony. And Laura Carlin’s delicate illustrations capture a young girl’s journey from a harsh, urban reality to the beauty and vitality of a changed world. This is a picture book of great beauty and hope about the power we have to transform our world.

Before Reading

Promises

Begin by displaying the single word ‘promise’. Can the children think of a time when they have made a promise?

Use a Circle Map (David Hyerle, 2008) to explore the concept. Write the word ‘promise’ in the centre of a large piece of paper and ask the children to think of how they would define the word around the outside. Ask the children to work in pairs to talk about this first. 

Look up and share the definitions from the more than one dictionary. Use a good quality junior dictionary (e.g. Oxford or Collins) The following definitions are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Put each of the definitions into a sentence. Looking at the definition in context is an important part of word learning.

  • A declaration or assurance that one will do something or that a particular thing will happen. (‘I did not keep my promise to go home early’)
  • An indication that something is likely to occur. (‘dawn came with the promise of fine weather’)
  • The quality of potential excellence. (‘he showed great promise even as a junior officer’)

Revisit the children’s initial definitions. How close are the above to the children’s definitions?

Fables

A fable is a short story that makes a moral point. Briefly share any fables that the children know. For example, are they familiar with Aesop’s Fables?

Tell the children that the title of the book is The Promise and ask them to speculate about the type of story it will be. What kind of message could there be in a book called The Promise? Write down ideas to come back to later in the unit of work.

During Reading

Visualising

Read the opening page aloud ensuring the children cannot see the illustration:

When I was young I lived in a city that was mean and hard and ugly. Its streets were dry as dust, cracked by heat and cold, and never blessed with rain. A gritty, yellow wind blew constantly, scratching round the buildings like a hungry dog.

Read it several times asking the children the close their eyes and picture the scene in their mind’s eye. Provide paper and pencils and ask the children to sketch what they imagine. Share ideas and notice differences and similarities.

Use collage materials or paint to create a piece of art to display on your working wall. Label the painting with keywords and phrases from the passage. Now share the illustration and invite comments from the children about their first impressions. Is it how they imagined or different?

Everything was broken

Share the front cover

  • What do you notice? Encourage the children to share their thoughts freely. You may want to draw attention to different features by using some of the following prompts:
  • What clues are there on the front cover to what the book might be about?  Read on to the end of the third spread, ‘My heart was as shrivelled as the dead trees in the park’.
  • Who can we see on the front cover? What sort of character do you think s/he is?
  • What is s/he doing? What can you see to the right hand side?
  • What can you see in the background?
  • How would you describe the colours? How do they make you feel? (You may want to point out that the red bird is bright red and the girl has blue in the pattern on her shirt and jeans, while the other colours are muted, murky tones).
  • What do you notice about the way the title has been written?

Open the book and look at the end papers. Ask the children to remember this image. You will come back to after you have read the story.

  • Pause to look at the half title page and dedication. What can you see?
  • Do the brick walls and fences remind you of anything? ( You might point out that everything seems to be mad of straight lines. There are no curves or flowing lines. Does that convey a particular atmosphere?)

Look at the front cover. Ask the children to reflect on/comment on the following:

  • Use of colour
  • Use of line
  • Use of shape and space
  • Speculate about why the world is in this state.
  • What has made the people mean and hard and ugly?
  • What could have stopped things growing?

The strength of heroes

  • When the girl steals the bag are you surprised by the way the old lady responds?
  • What do you think could be in the bag? Is it something valuable?
  • What would the girl hope is in there?

The old lady and girl are shown as shadows. What impact does this have on the reader? Does it look more threatening?

In pairs, go into role as the girl and the old lady while you read aloud from, ‘And then one night…to I ran off without a backward look’. Freeze at different points asking the children (in role) to explain how they are feeling and what thoughts are going through their minds.  

Only acorns

Compare and contrast the image of the girl when she discovers the acorns and the shadowy image when she steals the bag. What is changing? Notice the use of colour. Readers might be surprised that the girl understands the reason she has been given the acorns and doesn’t reject them immediately.

Nothing changed at first

  • What do you notice is starting to change?
  • How is this shown by the illustrations?
  • What is happening with the dogs and the hopscotch?

Read on to the end and notice the increased use of colour and the changing nature of the people.

Language

Find some examples of similes in the book and consider what impact they have on the reader For example:

  • ‘A gritty, yellow wind blew constantly, scratching round the buildings like a hungry dog’.
  • ‘The people scowled and scuttled to their homes like cockroaches’.
  • ‘Green spread through the city like a song, breathing to the sky, drawing down the rain like a blessing’.

After Reading

What is the message?

Talk about the way the story ends.

What happens to the narrator?

How might the story continue?

Does The Promise have a moral? What is the moral of The Promise? Share the following statements and ask the children to rank them in order of relevance. They can add their own ideas:

  • Growing trees is important
  • You should always keep your promises
  • Never steal
  • Always talk to your neighbours
  • Sometimes it is OK to steal
  • You can be rich even without any money

Comparison

Another story which centres around making a promise is Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross

Retelling

Identify the main parts of the story to depict through drama. For example:

  1. The bleakness of the city
  2. The thief and the promise
  3. The plants growing and life changing

Compose music to accompany each of the scenes.

Art

The illustrations are reminiscent of LS Lowry’s urban landscapes peopled with ‘matchstick men’. Spend some time looking at his work and creating your own paintings in the same style. Take the illustration from The Promise of the people who are ‘mean and hard and ugly’ and choose one person to transform. Use bright colours and change the expressions of their faces to create an alternative illustration after the trees have grown.

Science

There are strong links to science and the environment in this book. Plan a project to grow something simple in school.

Create your own promise

Identify an area (either in school or the local community) which could benefit from being transformed. Usea large sheet of paper and draw the area before the transformation on the left and your plans on the right using lots of colour. This could be planting wildflowers, cleaning up and area, creating artwork to cheer it up.

Poetry

In pairs, compose a phrase to describe the city at the beginning of the story, e.g. In the bleak, grey city.

Collect ideas and create a list poem. Experiment with changing the order and adding and removing words and phrases. Write a second poem about the city at the end of the story.

If you liked this book, you might enjoy…

Helen Ward Varmints

John Marsden, Shaun Tan (illus.) The Rabbits

Helen Ward, Wayne Anderson (illus.) The Tin Forest

Jeannie Baker Belonging

Shaun Tan The Lost Thing

Jeanne Wilis, Tony Ross (illus.) Tadpole’s Promise