The Map of Leaves is an atmospheric and original debut that truly does give nature a voice. The author lives on a narrow boat, travelling the canals with a garden on the roof of her boat and this background and her knowledge and love of our natural world permeates the entire story.
Orla has lived on her own in the village of Thorn Creek since the death of her Ma, with only her beloved garden for company. A mysterious illness threatens the village and rumour and accusations as to its origins are circulating through the small community. When nature itself is blamed, Orla rises to its defence and knows that she must find a cure. With her mother’s secret book of plants and remedies in her bag she hides away on a river boat with two other local children, Idris and Ariana, with the intention of discovering the truth about the illness. The story gradually alters to one of dangerous adventure as the reader follows the three children up the wild river as they race against time to solve the mystery.
The description of the natural world is beautifully done, with rich language creating a slightly hypnotic feel at the start of the story as we enter Orla’s damp and oppressive surroundings. This is a world where plants talk and a young girl listens. This world expands as the adventure takes the children on a perilous journey avoiding the evil chasing them, but Yarrow Townsend ensures that the natural world continues to take centre stage. The solution to their predicament lies in nature itself and the importance of respecting our surroundings rather than using them for selfish gain is key to the plot. The themes of this book should prompt discussion in Upper KS2 about our role in conserving nature and the medicinal properties of plants. Each chapter heading incorporates the name of a plant and its uses which children will find interesting and complements the way in which the plants themselves feature in the story, acting as guides and comforters to Orla.
The three children are unlikely allies initially and their different personalities are interesting. Orla, the lead character, is a girl showing defiance and courage but also racked with guilt, grief and anger, a complexity that increases the realism. Idris and Ariana both possess a depth that complements the story and the final part of the book highlights the importance of working in harmony with each other and with nature.
The Map of Leaves could be paired with non-fiction titles as part of a focus on our relationship with nature and possibly as a writing stimulus. I think the story would probably appeal to those who have enjoyed Where the World Turns Wild by Nicola Penfold.
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