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VESSEL OF PROMISES by Stephen Cowan Kirkus Star


A Bookish Fable

by Stephen Cowan ; illustrated by Ed Young

Pub Date: Nov. 10th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-525-51387-2
Publisher: Philomel

A familiar flood myth retold as a contemporary allegory.

Upon waking from her dream of an impending deluge, an old woman resolves to preserve life’s “promises” and ferry them to safety. She first repairs her roof, then gathers complementary “pairs” of promises based on relative polarity: fast/slow, young/old. When read aloud, the lyrical resonance suggests spectrums of interpretive potential within each rhyming couplet: Imagine what other enduring promises might exist in between “tall ones that could reach the tops of trees” and “short ones that could balance on your knees.” Equally intriguing are the verbal and visual metaphoric suggestions; might the “slowly… slowly…” rising river reference environmental phenomena and climate change? Or perhaps it alludes to shifting cultural tides that threaten the gradual erosion of memory, thereby resulting in passive acceptance of the status quo (remember the frog who does not notice itself being boiled alive)? The concertina binding, with two long, neatly folded tableaux (one on either side of the connected leaves) rather than individual double-page spreads, reinforces thematic flow, both facilitating fluid page turns and inviting dynamic or meditative interactions with the narrative. Textured abstractions—some splotchy, others splintered or spliced—represent the unrelenting downpour and submerged landscapes, while sporadic raindrops simultaneously outline the eyes of creatures large and small, evoking Noah’s Ark. Thanks to its keeper, this sturdy houseboat-cum-temple holds its own amid turbulence and uncertainty, sheltering the bookish promises cradled within.

Conveying communal wisdom and collective hope, this volume honors reading and knowledge as staples for a proverbial lifeboat.

(author’s note, illustrator’s note) (Picture book/novelty. 5-8)