Home Arts Review: ‘Runaway Pond’ by Nancy Price Graff, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline 

Review: ‘Runaway Pond’ by Nancy Price Graff, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline 

When I was ten, I was fascinated by the St. Lawrence Seaway, which was just being built, and of the history of the Erie Canal. Spending summer afternoons creating dams and channels on tiny Pollywog Pond nearby thrilled me with the power of water and my godlike capacity to change its course. When I discovered my brother’s book about Boy Scouts at the Panama Canal, more plots emerged for play with my friends: cutting through the jungle with sticks for machetes, looking for pirates’ hidden treasure, killing the mosquitoes, giving vaccines to yellow fever victims, and, most fun of all, playing with water, sticks, and leaves like beavers trying to divert small streams feeding the pond. Our dams, of course, never lasted long. 

Nancy Price Graff’s latest book for young people (and all of us) “Runaway Pond” (Candlewick Press, 2023), takes a dramatic story from Vermont history and brings it to life. It also furnishes a thoughtful reminder of the unintended consequences of changing the environment for humans’ benefit. The story begins in northeastern Vermont in the early days of European settlers, who built a village by a clear pond in the wilderness amid the moose and bears. Cows come to the water to drink, children fish for trout, all marvel at the mirror images in the still water and the glory of the reflected fall foliage that makes the pond look as if it’s on fire. 

But one year, the pond begins to flood when it rains and rains, washing away a dam and endangering neighbors below as it runs away down to lower elevation. Graff’s description of the wall of water as tall as a house filled with trees and debris is terrifying, and for many of us brings to mind the recent local floods and the power of water. Amid this destruction and danger, a hero emerges. The fastest runner in town, young Spencer Chamberlin, outraces the water to warn neighbors to get to higher ground. 

But the story does not end there, for the “runaway pond” has become a muddy puddle. Nature, however, continues to change to the new conditions. New plants and animals emerge, creating a marsh — useful to wildlife — and with its own beauty to delight the villagers. This miracle of ecological succession, then, concludes the story with not only a warning but also as a reminder of nature’s capacity to adapt. 

Graff relates the historical events from 1810 of “Runaway Pond” at the end of the book. After the destruction of recent floods and the many debates about solutions, I hope that more awareness of and respect for nature’s power will inform our decisions. 

The illustrations, watercolors by Bagram Ibatoulline, are a delight, with delicate and realistic details that invite you into the world of the village and the people. Each human has a story to tell through the illustrations, especially the children. Remembering my childhood attempts to master Pollywog Pond, and my fascination with marvels of human engineering such as the Panama Canal, Runaway Pond would have been an engaging introduction to another way to live with nature and to respect its power.