The Promise

Authored by Nicola Davies
Illustrated by Laura Carlin
Published by Walker Books

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Over the next few months, we are adding reviews to our website of books that we have selected for our programmes and resources, as well as the best new books. So you will find some of these reviews of older titles interspersed with more recent ones.

The book jacket of this stunning picturebook invites the reader to question. A young girl in the foreground has an open bag next to her. What could that be inside the bag? Can we see something inside? On the floor in front of her is a single acorn, she seems to be looking at it inquisitively. In the background, hundreds of people hunched over and moving in one direction towards what looks like a subway. How do the girl and these people relate to each other? They look as though they are in a hurry and not looking at each other. How clever of Laura Carlin to indicate that with just a few black lines.

What do the colours suggest,? The palette is mainly muted greys, but the girls blue jeans soften the image. The red bird stands out as a splash of bright colour in an otherwise drab world. Why did Laura Carlin choose to do that? Is the bird significant?

And then there is the title. What is the promise in this story? Who made the promise? What type of promise could it mean (a contract or potential)? So many questions and we haven’t even reached the story yet.

The narrative is a modern fable. The story opens with a young street urchin picking the pockets of ‘mean, hard people’ who live in the ‘mean hard city’. One day she tries to mug an old lady, who turns out to have an unexpected strength and refuses to hand over her bag. Until she says, ‘If you promise to plant them, I’ll let go.’ The girl promises and later discovers she has a bag of acorns. She keeps her promise planting by the rubbish tips, the railway lines, the choked up roads, and soon the city starts to transform. As ‘green spread through the city like a song, people’s hearts begin to change.’ The girl realises the power she has to transform the world with her bag of acorns and travels to the places where she is most needed until it is her turn to hand the bag on.

The partnering of Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin is inspired. Each brings a profundity to this story which elevates it beyond the here and now to something more mythic and powerful. The writing is sublime; it has the aural quality of poet and seasoned storyteller ‘The gritty wind still scratched the parched, cracked streets. The people scowled and scuttled to their homes like cockroaches.’

Carlin’s illustration is simultaneously sophisticated and childlike. In fact, for Carlin, there’s nothing simple about childhood and patronising young readers with images that leave no room for individual response or interpretation is not what we would expect from her.  Notice how with minimal detail she conveys mood, action and relationships in these character vignettes.

 

The visual language of colour and scale used to show the transformation from brutal city to colourful paradise evokes an emotional response in the readers. The towering perspective, straight lines and faceless windows dominate, while the young girl is suppressed at the bottom of the frame, only her face is visible as she appeals to the reader beyond the fourth wall. As the story moves to a more optimistic future, the palette brightens, red dominates and the scene bleeds to the edge of the page, opening up the girl’s world. The big lanterns almost seem to come out of the page and invite the reader to become a participant rather than a spectator.

Ultimately, perhaps this book carries both meanings of ‘promise’. The girl made a contract with the old women but the future looks more promising as a result of her actios.

A great book for the primary classroom, especially where there is plenty of opportunity for discussion.

This is one of our favourite books in Take One Book. We have included it in our year 5 sequences because the themes work well for this year group, but it could be read with any junior class. To find out more about Take One Book visit takeonebook.org

You may be interested in our podcast with Laura Carlin