Review: The Promise by Laura Carlin
By Kay Waddilove
Laura Carlin is an award-winning artist who has illustrated many children’s books, including The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. The Promise was selected by The New York Times as the best illustrated title of 2014, and came 19th (out of 51) in a list of ‘Best 2014 Women-Illustrated Picture Books’ – a somewhat dubious selection, which does not (surprise, surprise) appear to have been matched by a ‘Best Men-Illustrated’ prize … However, given the word limits imposed by the NCRCL blog reviews, I intend to refrain – with some difficulty – from engaging in the murky and well-worn debate around gender-restricted prize lists. Although I would be fascinated to know how the outstandingly successful Janet Ahlberg, Ruth Brown, Lauren Child, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy, Helen Oxenbury, Beatrix Potter – a random selection of names culled from a quick scan of my kidslit shelf – might have viewed such phenomena. Not to mention visiting Kate Greenaway’s grave (located in Hampstead Cemetery if anyone is interested) to check for signs of spinning. Certainly Carlin herself should be immune to any implication that the abilities of high-achieving women are somehow unusual; the ‘dog on its hind legs, walking well’ phenomenon. In addition to her successful illustration career, Laura is a noted ceramicist who has won the V&A award and been honourably mentioned in the Bologna Ragazzi Award, as well as being voted an ‘ADC Young Gun’ – one of the 50 most influential international creatives under 30 years of age. She also currently works with Quentin Blake in an advisory role for the development of the House of Illustration, which will be mounting an exhibition of her work between October 2015 and January 2016.
The Promise is a fantasy story of discovery with an environmental, political and philosophical theme. In a mean and ugly city, a young thief lives by stealing, but when she tries to snatch an old woman’s bag, she is forced to promise something in return – to “plant them all”. Discovering that the bag is full of acorns, the girl begins to understand the meaning of her promise; in starting to plant them, she embarks on a journey that changes her own life and that of others. Nicola Davies, author of the text, has written a number of previous titles that, like this one, are informed by the belief that a relationship with nature is essential to every human being, and that there is currently an urgent need to renew that relationship. The narrative was inspired by Jean Giono’s The Man Who Planted Trees (1953), and the stories complement each other, both highlighting the transformative power of trees, although The Promise is set in an urban rather than a rural landscape. The vision evoked by word and picture captures the young girl’s journey from a grim urban reality to the beauty and vitality of a changed world, in which people and nature live in harmony in the city. Interviewed on the Carnegie website, Laura Carlin describes The Promise as “a book about hope”.