Review: The Promise

The Promise

by Bridget Hodder and Fawzia Gilani-Williams, illustrated by Cinzia Battistel

Kar-Ben Publishing (imprint of Lerner Publishing Group), 2023

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Meg Wiviott

Jacob and Hassan live in a small village in Morocco. The boys go to different schools, practice different faiths, and are best friends. They play together in the cool, lush garden of Jacob’s family, designed to resemble gardens of ancestral Spain. Their families share meals, conversations, and drink mint tea together in the lovely garden. Hassan’s father says, “A garden is a prayer.” And Jacob’s father says, “A garden is also a promise.” The boys agree and tend the garden together. All is well until news arrives: “Frightening things, terrible hateful things, were being done to Jews in Europe.” Fearing the spread of danger, Jacob’s family must flee Morocco. Before Jacob departs, he asks Hassan to tend the garden. Hassan promises he will. Years later, a grey-haired Jacob returns to the garden to find a grey-haired Hassan keeping his word.

Based on a true friendship, THE PROMISE is an unique example of how diverse people form life-long bonds with mutual respect and admiration. The illustrations are done in colors as lush and as cool as the garden. The characters are portrayed in traditional clothing, giving a sense of timelessness and adding to the deep sentiments of friendship, faith, prayer, and promises.

An Historical Note provides historical context and information on the friendship which inspired the story.

Jacob, Hassan, and their families absolutely feel authentic. The Jewish content is “casual” – Jacob studies with the rabbi at the synagogue and his mother shares bimuelos (a Sephardic orange-honey donuts often served at Hanukah), and Hassan’s mother shares khobz (a flatbread he eats with Shabbat stew) – however, without Jacob and his family being Jewish and forced to leave their homeland (for the second time, if one counts the 1492 Expulsion) there would be no story at all. The timelessness of the story, however, also may add confusion. Early in the story the reader is told, “Many years before, Jacob’s family had come to Morocco from Spain.” Does the word ‘many’ mean generational time? When the family flees Morocco, the language makes reference to “terrible things” being done to Jews, which in all honesty could be almost any time in history. Then the Historical Note explains that the danger was the rise of Nazi Germany. This reviewer's desire for the story to be more firmly grounded in time is a minor criticism of an otherwise a lovely, heartfelt story.

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Reviewer Meg Wiviott is the author of the YA novel in verse PAPER HEARTS, which received a 2016 Christopher Award. Her picture book, BENNO AND THE NIGHT OF BROKEN GLASS, was selected as one of SLJ’s Best Picture Books of 2010 and made CCBC’s Best Choice List. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.