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”.
An important criterion for the Greenaway prize is the effective synergy of illustration and text, and Carlin discusses this aspect at length in her online interview. The sombre, claustrophobic and harsh city life is represented by the muted grey, black and brown palette of the early pages, but lightens when the protagonist discovers the “so green, so perfect” acorns in her stolen bag; colours begin to permeate the pages in dream-like sequences, slowly replacing the bleak monochromatic world with one of vibrant colours. In the first dream a tunnel of light appears, in which the metaphorical black crows of the book’s earlier reality are replaced by flocks of colourful birds; a motif which is repeated in the celebration sequences that begin to dominate the pages as the young girl plants and creates transformation in yet “another… and another… and another… sad and sorry city”.
Current political references abound in Carlin’s illustrations, which interpret and extend Davies’ sparse and understated text. As well as redundant industrial wastelands, we are shown the massed anonymous hordes entering and leaving an unsignposted underground, closed down signs on shops, stray dogs or foxes scavenging rubbish heaps, impotent and angry graffiti protesting increased taxes, and so on. This dystopic vision is slowly banished by the artist’s application of colour, which, in one illustration, appears as a wall; the colour wall then follows the girl in her mission, expanding to invade the gutter and breaking the frames on succeeding pages, culminating in the glorious edge-to-edge carnival of the final double-page spread. The peritext reinforces this progression; the single red bird on the cover, set against the bleak grey city, hints at the ultimately optimistic message of the book, while the endpapers are ideological signifiers of its philosophy. The contrast between the drab paving stones, littered, bare and exposed on the beginning endpaper, and covered, almost obscured, by a lush jungle garden at the end, wordlessly, and thus the more powerfully, encode the meaning of this story.
The Promise is clearly a fable – it has a very clear, even simplistic, moral – and Carlin’s delicate illustrations and mixed media artwork do an excellent job of bringing atmosphere to the reader via the visual world, as the changes in the girl begin to change the world she inhabits. However, despite my enjoyment of the book on first reading, I have doubts about its impact on child readers. The Carnegie panel recommend it for an audience of 8+ years, while various reviewers have designated a reading range of 2 to 5 years; clearly there is confusion (as with several of the titles on this year’s Greenaway shortlist) about the appropriate audience for this text. While visually beautiful, it is ideologically unconvincing as the somewhat facile presentation of the environmental message undermines its effectiveness. In the words of Dax, a primary school reviewer, “even though it was meant to be a very strong book, for me, it didn’t really cut it”. So, not a winner, in Dax’s and my opinion (also, as we now know, that of the judging panel) – but definitely worth looking at.
Useful links for further reading:
House of Illustration (Kings Cross, London)
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.