Vessel of Promises: A Bookish Fable by Stephan Cowan, illustrated by Ed Young


    Vessel of Promises: A Bookish Fable by Stephan Cowan, illustrated by Ed Young, Philomel (an imprint of Penguin Random House), 9780525513872, 2020 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3

Format: Hardcover

What did you like about the book?  This oversized picture book retells the story of Noah’s Ark, but instead of saving animals, the protagonist turns out to be saving books. Scrawled white handwriting over black pages tells us about an old woman who dreams that the water is rising (is it a metaphor for climate change? Intolerance? Anti-intellectualism?).  In response, she gathers up “all the promises she could think to find,” which are variously described as strong, small, mysterious, sad, fast or slow, among other adjectives. Water covers the land, but it turns out all the “promises” saved were books and the vessel is the library she builds to hold them all. The singsong narrative is told in simple rhyming couplets and the medium looks like watercolor, with fine lines sketching out various animals (in fact, the pictures were rendered in Adobe Photoshop by John Hudak).

The most interesting thing about the book is its construction. Rather than individual pages sewn into a center binding, the pages are hinged accordion-style and can unfold into an 11-page continuous narrative and then flipped over to glimpse the second half of the story. The background texture of each page is interesting and unique, from lines that recall terraced land, to stormy cloud-like creations, to petrified wood surfaces, and then back to land as waters recede. The paper is thick and seems like it would hold up to the multiple foldings and unfoldings it will surely encounter. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? I’m not sure who the intended audience is for this experiment. The leap from promises equated with animals to books was abstract and difficult even for me to grasp. As the heroine grabbed up the endangered “ones” in her long sweep, I lost track of what she was doing and the pictures of animals didn’t help. Of course, I’m always thrilled to see books celebrating libraries, but the librarian as an old woman, collecting and saving stories in a building, felt pretty retro. Unlike Ed Young’s usual collage style, with its variety of textures and colors, the illustrations here were flat and often muddy. Strangely, the font used on the cover appeared fuzzy; coupled with the black background covered with nondescript and weird squiggles, the book lacks visual appeal.

To whom would you recommend this book?  The unique fold-out element will be the primary draw here, so those interested in books as objects rather than for narrative coherence will enjoy this. 

Who should buy this book? Public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Picture books

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: February 7, 2021

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