Title: The Garden at the End of the World

Author: Cassy Polimeni

Illustrator: Briony Stewart

Publisher: University of Queensland Press – UQP  

Publication date: 4 April 2023

Themes: Hope, action, the Crop Trust, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Sustainable Development Goals, food security and stewardship

Additional notable information: Comprehensive teachers’ notes which include a link to a virtual tour of the Seed Vault can be downloaded from the UQP website here.

The Garden at the End of the World by Cassy Polimeni and illustrated by Briony Stewart is a picture book that oozes heart and wonder. This beautiful, hopeful story follows a mother and daughter to Svalbard, where the Global Seed Vault is located, to deposit a unique seed pod they found while foraging in the forest. This book with themes relating to hope, action, the Crop Trust, the Global Seed Vault, Sustainable Development Goals, food security and stewardship, is a story that buoys hope for the future. This gentle tale deftly illustrates that people are actively working together so that in the event of any sort of challenge or crisis there will always be the ability to protect crop diversity and ensure a reliable food supply in the future. This beautiful book affords readers the wonderous and vicarious experience of travelling with a young girl, Isla and her botanist mother from their home to the Arctic town of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, where the seed vault is built into the bedrock ensuring the rooms remain naturally frozen keeping the seeds viable for future generations.

This story begins in the garden of Isla’s home which backs onto an inviting forest, dappled in sunlight and beckoning to be explored. Isla and her mother explore the forest, open to the possibilities of what they may discover and savour the sights and sounds that surround them. Isla delights in discovering a seed pod. This discovery is the impetus for something magical. That night while tucked up in bed, Isla’s mother who has the consummate ability to ignite wonder, tells Isla a story complete with shadow puppets. This is a story about a land far away, “at the end of the world…on an island covered in ice”. Here a vault exists that is home to millions of seeds that due to the conditions, are viable for hundreds of years. This story sparks Isla’s imagination as she begins to wonder about this frosty, far away magical place.

Isla and her Mum embark on a trip to the island of Svalbard. The first leg of their journey sees them take a plane trip which, as they approach their enchanting destination, reveals vast, snow-capped  mountains. Once in Longyearbyen, on the long polar night, they meet their guide who tantalises them with the possibility of seeing the northern lights. While travelling on the snow mobile, Isla’s mother paints a picture of how life was different in this location back in prehistoric times. The final leg of the journey is taken on foot in the bitter cold where the twinkling vault, complete with the illuminated art above the entrance door, is discovered. This artwork takes full advantage of the location as it has been created using materials cut in specific designs to reflect the midnight sun during the summer and is combined with fibre optic cables to reflect different coloured light during the polar nights.

The final part of the story takes the reader inside the vault with Isla and her mother. The story includes “White Eagle corn from the Cherokee nation. Kangaroo grass from Australia. Chickpeas from India to name a few. Isla makes her deposit “in the garden at the end of the world”.

The stunning figurative language such as “sunlight drips from the trees like honey” and “the view from the plane reminds Isla of watching Grandma make meringue. A bowl of whipped eggs with frothy white peaks” impresses upon the reader such vivid images that the reader will relate to. It memorably brings the settings to dramatic life.

Briony’s evocative illustrations add to the beauty, magic and wonder that pervades this story. The use of light in the illustrations, be it sunlight, that made with a torch, reflected in some way, or as a natural phenomenon, all convey a sense of hope. Throughout the story the theme of new life is represented in the illustrations with seedlings and plants peppered throughout the pages. Isla’s imagination is also captured on the pages as Briony includes Isla’s wonderings in response to her Mum’s stories, first when introducing Isla to the idea of the seed vault and when her mother describes what the area looks like hundreds of millions of years ago. Interestingly, cyanotype prints (sunprints) of plants are also seamlessly woven into the illustrations and are included on the gorgeous endpapers.

This is a hopeful book that will no doubt inspire conversations, further inquiry and sew more seeds of hope as readers learn about the innovation and science that is happening right now to help the world today and into the future.

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