Tadpole’s Promise – horrific or hilarious?

Tadpole’s Promise by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross (Andersen, 2005)

Now here’s an odd one. Fils aîné loves this book and so, apparently, do a lot of other people – it won the Smarties Book Prize silver award, was longlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal and has heaps of positive reviews from parents and teachers alike. The landscape format of the book is unusual with one page representing the water and the other the sky, and the back cover blurb featured a Sunday Times review:

“Breaks the mould in form as well as content. “

When we borrowed Tadpole’s Promise  from the library a while ago, we knew nothing about it beforehand, yet it left mon mari and me distinctly unsettled. We found ourselves reluctant to read it again, the book was returned to the library and we forgot about it for a while. Then, the other day, the boy came home from school and announced apropos of nothing: “we read that Tadpole’s Promise book on the white board in assembly.” I said, “oh, I didn’t like that book, it was sad,” and got the reply “no it’s not, it’s funny!”

Now, how to explain why without spoilers?

A tadpole and a caterpillar fall in love and make each other a rash promise that they will never change – of course this is a vow that cannot be kept. The tadpole keeps changing, much to the caterpillar’s chagrin. But the ending! Is this a children’s book or a Greek tragedy? I know nature’s red in tooth and claw and all that, and I can see that it could be a welcome antidote to too much saccharine writing for children but… I don’t know whether fils aîné has understood what it’s really about, or whether he’s just the target audience to appreciate that kind of humour. I don’t know whether mari and I are over-thinking, sentimentalising, anthropomorphising too much. Is it hilarious or horrific? I just don’t know.

Have you read it? If so, what did you think? If not, and you’re thinking about reading it to your child(ren) make sure you’ve read it first to try to gauge their reaction!

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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5 Responses to Tadpole’s Promise – horrific or hilarious?

  1. I haven’t read it but I’ve got the idea that someone eats the other one at the end? Somehow I don’t think my daughters would like it, not if the start of the story is about love between the two. But then what my daughters find upsetting, other children do find funny… Apart from different reactions from children with different personnalities I wonder what the ‘morale’ of the story is ?!

  2. Treebee says:

    I borrowed this from the library and have just read it. I was going to try it out on my 2 year old grandson, but won’t now.
    It’s quite disturbing , isn’t it? The illustration is from the natural world and some creatures change and also eat each other.
    But they don’t fall in love, as far as we know, and certainly don’t promise never to change.
    I think it’s the anthropomorphism that mars the story for me.
    There may be circumstances where this book could be helpful, if a child has gone through some trauma and needs to understand that s**t happens.

  3. rena k. says:

    I was highly upset when I read the story back when I was 15 or so and almost cried. My mother thought it was funny though. Perhaps it just doesn’t have the same impact on people. Nevertheless, I do not dislike this book.

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