Yarrow Townsend on The Map of Leaves and adventure books for kids with environmental themes
The book we’ve sent our Cockatoo subscribers this month is The Map of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend, a mysterious and hugely atmospheric adventure story with a striking message. It’s the perfect middle grade read! Orla lives alone, isolated from her community with only her garden for company. When her beloved plants are blamed for a mysterious sickness, she sets out with two fellow stowaways to find a cure and uncover some terrible truths. It’s an important and beautiful book – we loved the stunning setting and the complex relationships between the three central characters in particular. Here Yarrow tells us what inspired the book and which adventure books with environmental themes she recommends you read next.
What inspired you to write The Map of Leaves?
I love being surrounded by plants. I've had lots of jobs working outdoors in bad weather and love to see how they change through the seasons. I especially like the plants that other people consider weeds - like nettles and dock and dandelions. I find it fascinating how they've been used historically. So, I wanted to give them a voice!
What research did you do for the book and did you learn anything that surprised you?
As well as spending time looking at plants outside, I read a lot of books about medicinal plants from around the world. I also researched how plants have been used to make ink and paint. I even had a go at making some myself. I was especially inspired by the discovery of a pigment called Prussian Blue, which was created by accident in 1706 and later became used as a cure for certain kinds of radiation.
We love the setting! Was it inspired by a particular place?
I grew up very close to the New Forest. As well as being home to some of the oldest trees in the country, it also has some very important wetland habitat. These places look very marshy and boggy and to a lot of people, they might seem totally unexciting. But they are one of the few places locally that you can find the UK's only carnivorous plant - the sundew! When I came up with the character of Orla, I knew she would fight fiercely to protect places that other people might ignore.
We were really struck by the relationship between the three main characters. What do you think would have happened to Orla without Idris and Ariana?
At the start of the story, Orla lives alone in her garden with only her plants and her horse for company. She thinks that she doesn't need help from anyone else. She's also had bad experiences trying to make friends in the past and feels a bit of an outsider in the village. If it wasn't for the plants getting sick, Orla probably would have happily carried on alone. But when the children find they have a common cause, she starts to accept help. Very slowly!
Why did you choose to write books for this age group?
Deep inside, I think I'm still about ten years old. Some of my favourite activities are climbing trees, stomping in mud and getting my shoes wet exploring in the sea. I always want to see what's around the next corner! There's so much potential for adventure when writing for younger readers.
Do you have a favourite place to write?
I live on a boat, so I can often be found at my little desk looking out of a porthole or sitting on the roof if the weather is good. I also love to go to libraries where I am surrounded by hundreds of other stories.
What other adventure books, or books with environmental themes, would you recommend our subscribers read next?
One of my favourite books in recent times is Strange Birds by Celia C Pérez. It's about a group of girls who form their own scout group to fight for environmental justice in their local area. I love how the characters come together in a common cause. For readers who like adventures with boats, there is no better book than The Murderer's Ape by Jacob Wegelius. Its main character is a gorilla called Sally Jones. Finally, I always love rereading the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver. She has done so much research into bringing ancient landscapes to life!
Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Orla, Idris and Ariana?
My next book takes place in a very different landscape with a whole new cast of characters. It's also very inspired by my time working out in nature - this time with birds. Without giving too much away about the ending of The Map of Leaves, I think Idris, Ariana and Orla are very occupied with a big project - so perhaps I'll revisit them one day to see how they're getting on!
Copies of our The Map of Leaves pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!
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