• Posted on July 29, 2014
The Promise Davies Carlin

The Promise

Be the change that you wish to see in the world ~ Mahatma Gandhi

If I had to name the theme I am most drawn to in children’s literature, it would be the transformational power of nature. It must have started with a youthful reading of The Secret Garden, or perhaps it’s a Canadian thing, but whatever the source, a walk in the woods can do wonders, figuratively of course, and also metaphorically, in books. But what if there are no woods? Arguably, children’s books that reflect (and celebrate) the urban experience are growing in frequency and popularity, but few deal directly with the other side of city life – the concrete wastelands that are the byproduct of urban decay and our ever growing estrangement from the natural world.

The Promise cover

Most children’s books tend toward the utopian, especially in terms of setting. In The Promise, Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin hold up a mirror to our dying, degraded cities, and then, with a simple gesture, present us with a most beautiful and transformational resolution.

It is unclear whether The Promise is set in the present, or in a dystopian future, but the initial pages suggest a parched world where nothing grows. Carlin’s illustrations, stunning in their cool, abstract beauty, depict scenes bereft of colour: bleak, industrial, and entirely cheerless. The patchwork of buildings, distinguished only by the number of blackened windows, seem lifeless. The are streets empty, but for a few dogs and a scattering of people, all of whom reflect the broken connections of a town that has lost its way. There are many types of disconnection in Davies’ evocative tale, but threading through all is the disconnect from nature. In a harsh and ungiving environment, the people have lost the ability to find fellowship with each other. The young girl at the centre of the story does not distinguish herself from the ‘mean, hard and ugly’ people of her community. Indeed, she will even steal a bag from an old woman.

This is where The Promise takes flight. After a struggle, the old woman promises to let the bag go if the girl promises to plant what is within. Dismissing her words, the girl makes the promise, and is surprised to find not food and money in the bag, but acorns.

“I stared at them, so green, so perfect, and so many, and I understood the promise I had made. I held a forest in my arms, and my heart was changed.”

The Promise seeds grow

Like a Johnny Appleseed for the 21st century, she sets off on her journey, planting the acorns along roadways, train tracks, apartment buildings, abandoned parks; anywhere, and everywhere. When the trees begin to sprout, the people are curious. Curiosity soon gives way to wonder. Wonder gives way to joy. As life returns to the city, a community is reborn, and the pages of The Promise fill with breathtaking, transcendent colour.

The Promise colourful trees

Green spread through the city like a song, breathing to the sky, drawing down the rain like a blessing.”

Her mission continues, to other ‘sad and sorry’ cities, until she has, in turn, become an old woman with a bag of acorns. It is at this point she begins to narrate her story.

What is most profound about The Promise is that Nicola Davies takes a complex issue like urban decay, and shows us in simple, elegant prose the human cost – in a state of nature deficit, we cannot thrive. We may not even be able to live. More importantly, she places the responsibility for change on individual acts of stewardship. An important lesson not just for kids, but for everyone.

The Promise is a deeply moving and gloriously illustrated book that does not shy away from scenes of despair, nor does it suffer from a failure of the imagination, like so many other stories with an environmental message. On the contrary, Davies and Carlin envision a brighter, more communal, and nature-abundant future, in the actionable now.

The Promise birds

Nicola Davies is a zoologist and an award winning author of many nature-centric books for children. Clearly, she is a woman who has taken a walk or two in the woods. A woman, in other words, after my own heart.

The Promise is Laura Carlin’s first picture book, which is rather astounding. A graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, Ms Carlin has recently illustrated The Iron Man by Ted Hughes.

The Promise by Nicola Davies, illustrations by Laura Carlin. Candlewick Press, 2014

For additional reading along a similar vein, I would suggest The Curious Garden by Peter Brown, which is based on the guerrilla gardening movement on Manhattan’s abandoned High Line.

On a related note, I love this Ted Talk by Amanda Burden, former city planner for New York, on how public spaces make cities work.

  • Posted on August 30, 2013
Once Upon a Northern Night blue forest

Once Upon a Northern Night

On rare occasions, a picture book comes my way that is so evocative, it feels like a lost memory from childhood, revealing itself page after page. Once Upon a Northern Night is a such a book. Oddly out of time, and yet timeless, Once Upon a Northern Night is a breathsucker, a gust of cold winter air awakening the senses. After several readings, I am still amazed that this glorious book has been in existence for a mere few months, not fifty years. The gentle poetry of Jean Pendziwol has the lilt and reverence of an old bedtime story, the kind without irony or guile. Like Pendziwol’s words, Isabelle Arsenault’s luminous illustrations belong to a bygone era of limited palettes and charmingly stylized imagery. If books have souls, then Once Upon a Northern Night is an old soul.

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  • Posted on April 11, 2012
House Held Up By Trees Klassen

Held Up By Trees

Another book by Jon Klassen. This time, it is Pulitzer Prize winning poet Ted Kooser providing the words, but visually, House Held Up by Trees is classic Klassen. The 60′s flavoured, flat-toned illustrative style is reminiscent of the much-lauded I Want My Hat Back (minus the bear), while the story is firmly planted in the urban, or suburban, experience. Conveniently, the subject matter is apropos to my previous post on the apparent abandonment of nature and natural imagery in picture books. In a House Held Up By Trees, people do indeed abandon nature (although the illustrations remain gloriously tree-infused), but the great thing about this book, and about nature in general~it finds a way. Trees find a way. Life, in all its exuberance, finds a way, and Kooser & Klassen find a way to make this heroic story of nature exerting itself a stirring, beautiful thing.

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  • Posted on April 03, 2012
Along a Long Road Frank Viva

Nurturing Nature

This blog is exclusively for the review of new and older picture books, and yet I feel compelled to comment on an article I read a few weeks ago on the interwebs. It’s not for lack of opinions on other topics, but the findings in this study seemed contrary to my observations as a former bookseller and as a long-time collector of picture books. One proviso: I am fairly focused in my picture book predilections. It’s all about the illustration, in other words, although to be fair, great writing usually goes hand in hand with great art. Also, up to this point I had not made particular note of setting, at least within a sociological context. As a result, there is a lot of stuff I simply don’t see, because the visuals of most books do not resonate (for me.) It is therefore possible, and perhaps probable, that I’ve missed patterns and trends in my multi-national, multi-genre search for illustration excellence. Trust me, it wouldn’t be the first time a trend has passed me by…

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  • Posted on February 26, 2012
A House in the Woods

A House in the Woods

At some point during winter, when the landscape is daubed in grey and Spring is still in the abstract, I turn to the golf channel, not because I have a fondness for rich, white men (or at least not the married ones), but because I crave the green. And when the inevitable boredom hits (approximately 15 minutes in), I turn to picture books- a dose of bibliotherapy to soothe my seasonal affective disordered brain. Of course, this only works with the really colourful books, such as A House in the Woods by Inga Moore. The snow is piling up in drifts outside, but it doesn’t matter. I am following moose, bear, and two little pigs through an autumnal wood as they gather building materials for their project, a cozy house where all four will eventually live. The illustrations are so vibrant, I can almost smell the spotted mushrooms, and the thick undergrowth of the forest. Say what you want about golf, other than the green of the grass, it just doesn’t have the sensual impact of a great picture book.

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  • Posted on April 27, 2010

When Gardens Go Rogue

There are many things I love: picture books, walking, weevils, ketchup, Hoarders (the TV show), large foreheads, anthropomorphism. Yeah, about that last one…it’s virtually impossible for me to look at a tree, a magpie, a spider, or my 22 pound cat and not see human emotion pooling in their eyes…or branches. I cheer when a plant sprouts a new leaf. My library is a living, breathing thing, and I would never, ever intentionally break the spine of a book. Whenever I am in a garden, I send my love to the bees. It seems rude not to do these things.

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