Over at this eloquent post at her website, British picture book author Nicola Davies describes her newest picture book, The Promise, as a story about the definition and transformation of physical and emotional spaces. Her post, what I’d call required reading for aspiring picture book authors, includes incisive thoughts about writing children’s books—with particular insights into what it can be like to craft nonfiction books for children. Davies is refreshingly honest in this piece, not skipping over the occasional agonies of publishing, and noting with pleasure that writing this latest book was an altogether different and surprising experience.
Davies is a zoologist and the award-winning author of many nonfiction children’s books, but this latest venture is fiction. It’s inspired by Jean Giono’s 1953 story, L’homme qui plantait des arbre, and is a short allegory about big things: poverty (in more ways than one), desolation, hope, metamorphosis and rebirth. Tying it all together is the notion of connection with the natural world and the renewal and growth it brings. In the story, illustrated by Laura Carlin, a young girl in a soulless, grey town—with people just as “mean and hard and ugly”—steals an elderly lady’s bag, only to find acorns inside, which she then plants to transform a bleak town into one of color and life. As a result, the girl’s own life is transformed as well.
The story, Davies tells me, has something to say about the nurture of our environment, but it’s also about the power of one person to make a difference. “What could be more important or pertinent in the modern world?” she asks me. “But I wanted my story to serve another purpose, specifically for children and young people. I wanted it to send a message about personal change. I meet a lot of kids in my work, kids who have had various kinds of bad starts in life, and I wanted a story that says that a bad start doesn't mean a bad end, change is possible, and taking power in your hands to change the world is possible.”
Davies opted for an altogether new story, inspired by Giono’s but not an adaptation of it. It needed, she says, to “carry the message of the old in a new way for modern, urban kids. I wanted my story to have an urban setting to show the importance of remaking the connection with nature, even in the heart of the city. And I wanted a street child at the heart of the story—a child for whom no one was looking out, a child who had been failed by the adults around her.”
This is Carlin’s first picture book, though she’s previously done editorial illustrations. Her palette here goes from cold, lifeless greys and shadows to vibrant colors and abundant life, as trees and flowers in the story spread “in parks and gardens, on balconies and rooftops.”
“It’s an extraordinary privilege to work with Laura,” Davies tells me, “an artist whose work is in line with the contents of her soul. As soon as I saw her work, I knew she had to be the one to do this story. Her portrayal of space is wonderful—and this book is about space, both physical, exterior space, and interior, mental, and emotional space. When I saw her work for the book, it was just perfectly right and marvelous, but at the same time surprising, extending the ideas of my story in ways I hadn't foreseen.”
Davies is eager to share the story with young readers. Just after our conversation, she was off in a flash to work in international schools in Sudan and Ethiopia, which she’ll follow with a year-long stint at a primary school in London, one in which a majority of the children speak English as a second language. In the fall, she heads to upstate New York to work with schools. Davies loves working with children but finds herself doing it less, due to writing deadlines. “Writing is solitary,” she explains, “and sometimes dispiriting, but children always cheer me and connect me with the reason why I do this work. What I don't get to do as much now is see animals and be in the wild, but I'm hoping I can engineer a major escape for myself in the next couple of years. I need a big recharge!”
For now, Davies is also busy talking to Inuit residents about bowhead whales and their culture for one of her next books. “I am fascinated by the far north,” she says. “I spent two summers studying humpback whales in Newfoundland and Labrador when I was a student, and I’ve been to Alaska and Spitsbergen since.” Davies won’t be traveling to Nunavut, Canada, to research this book on the cold, arctic ground, but she’s in touch with communities there to “try and get the setting of the story right.”
After that, she’ll be working on a book about Caucasian leopards in Armenia, the rewrite of “a novel I didn't get right the first time last year,” a picture book for very little kids, and a novel to follow-up Whale Boy, which was shortlisted for the Best Story category of the 2014 Blue Peter Book Awards in the U.K.
It’s all in a day’s work for someone who believes that a transformation of our relationship with the natural world, as well as a change in behavior, can—and must—happen. As she puts it, “the world can change, one heart at a time.”
THE PROMISE. Text copyright © 2013 by Nicola Davies. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Laura Carlin. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.