When I first learned about World Book Night, I knew immediately that I wanted to apply to be a book giver. According to its website: World Book Night is an annual celebration dedicated to spreading the love of reading, person to person. Each year on April 23, tens of thousands of people in the U.S. go out into their communities and give a total of half a million free World Book Night paperbacks to light and non-readers.
Several months ago, I applied to be a “giver” for this year’s April 23, 2013, book night, and I was thrilled when my proposal to give books to the women at the Gadsden Correctional Facility was approved. My first choice (you have to submit three) was The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. (My second choices were the English version of The Alchemist and the Spanish version of The Alchemist.) I was thrilled to get The Language of Flowers. I felt like it was a perfect fit for the women at Gadsden, who I first got to know almost a year ago when I began volunteering with their running club.
When we started our evening, I propped up our “blank canvas” next to me:
Here is a slightly abridged version of my presentation:
World Book Night 2013 – The Language of Flowers
Hi everyone – it is really nice to be here tonight!
I applied to be a Book Giver for World Book Night so that I could have an excuse to come here without getting all sweaty like I do with the running club (kidding!).
When I found out about World Book Night, which is an annual celebration dedicated to spreading the love of reading, person to person, I noticed that one of the book choices was The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I immediately thought about the landscaping I have seen here when I have been participating in the runs, and it occurred to me that this book would be a good match for you all.
It is difficult to talk about The Language of Flowers without giving away a lot of what happens, so I am going to talk about the book some, but I am also going to talk about what I have gotten out of reading and out of participating in book clubs. Throughout that, I am going to share how much the “meaning” of flowers struck me as I read the book, and we are going to create our own floral “arrangement” as a keepsake of our evening together.
When I first heard about this book, our book club at work was considering reading it. The title made me think of a dry reference book with explanations of what different flowers “meant.” (Attaching meanings to flowers started back in the Victorian ages in the 1800s, so you could fill a whole reference book with names of flowers and definitions). What shocked me, pleasantly, when I started reading The Language of Flowers is that although it is about flowers and their meanings, it is actually Victoria’s story.
When we first meet Victoria, she is 18. Having been abandoned as an infant, she ends up winding her way through various residences, through foster homes, group homes, and the adoption process. Although these experiences held more pain than happiness, she was at a home for a period of time with an adult who loved flowers and taught her their meaning. This knowledge finds its place in her heart, and whatever happens throughout the book, her abilities with flowers, and her intuitive understanding that there is more to them than color and smell, takes her on a long and winding journey.
**I am going to stop here so we can start our arrangement. Each of you will get to add a flower to the arrangement, but I will start the ball rolling by giving the arrangement a backdrop. This (green foliage) is fern. It has a fancy name that I can’t pronounce, but it stands for sincerity. So when you look at this arrangement, you’ll know that this activity comes from me, from a place of sincerity.**
Another thing that fascinated me about The Language of Flowers is that I had an opportunity to hear an interview the author gave. I learned that she is a foster parent herself and I continued to have the sense as I read the book that she was infusing Victoria with her own exposure to that world. She is from California, studied creative writing and education, then went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children: Tre’von, eighteen, who is a former foster child; Chela, four; and Miles, three. Tre’von is now attending New York University.
Vanessa Diffenbaugh is also the founder of The Camellia Network. The mission of the Camellia Network is to create a nationwide movement to support youth transitioning from foster care. In The Language of Flowers, Camellia means “My Destiny is in Your Hands.” The network’s name emphasizes the belief in the interconnectedness of humanity: each gift a young person receives is accompanied by a camellia, a reminder that the destiny of our nation lies in the hands of our youngest citizens. (Italicized info from The Camellia Network website.)
**At this point, I was going to invite someone to add a camellia as the first flower but the camellia was hiding from me! (It was found and added later.)**
Ms. Norris (the staff member who helped coordinate the evening) told me you have been talking about starting a book club here. I think that’s a great idea! I have been a member of several. It fascinates me how five different people reading the same book can come away with five completely different impressions of what the book said and what it meant to them! Another thing that being in a book club did for me was force me to read things that I may not have read otherwise. I am glad I was pushed to read something that I would not have chosen otherwise. We have also been fortunate to have some authors come and speak with us. It’s always interesting to hear about the process behind the writing of a book.
**I stopped here to let some of the participants add flowers**
Before I talk a little bit more about the book “The Language of Flowers” while trying not to give away the plot, I am curious what some of your favorite books are. I will tell you mine is The Diary of a Young Girl, also known as the Diary of Anne Frank. It moved me so much when I was young. As a result, I am still involved in Holocaust Education efforts in Tallahassee.
Anyone want to share theirs?
**We discussed favorite books, then more women added flowers to our arrangement.**
Before we complete our arrangement, I’ll tell you a little more about what to expect in the book, but like I said I have to leave a lot of it a mystery. That’s the fun of having something to look forward to. Victoria, who the book centers around, has a lot of challenges seeing her own potential. You will meet various people in the book who see a lot more in her than she does in herself. Is that something that any of you can relate to?
Another thing you will notice about The Language of Flowers is that the chapters alternate between “present time” and various stages in Victoria’s life. Some people like that in a book. Some don’t. Once I got used to it, it was okay! And I was listening to it as an audio book so that arrangement took a little getting used to.
You will see “family” represented several different ways throughout The Language of Flowers. I think this is something the author’s background being involved in the foster care system helped with in writing this book. You can see several of the characters struggle with finding themselves despite having a non traditional family upbringing, or despite having hardly any family support at all, or despite having a parent with mental illness. There are a lot of things that lead these characters to wonder if they have what it takes to be a family.
We are going to finish our floral arrangement and then I have two last things to say.
**The last of the participants added flowers.**
Lastly, one theme you will see a lot of in The Language of Flowers is forgiveness and second chances. I can’t say for who, how, or why or I would take away the awesome discovery of being a reader of this book, but trust me, they’re there.There is a line in the book where Victoria says, “moss grows without roots.” To me that symbolizes the fact that even when we don’t have the perfect foundation and have to rely on ourselves, we can still grow and flourish. (At this point I added a picture of moss to the arrangement as the finishing touch.)
And to share my favorite line with you:
There is a point near the end of the book when Victoria faces another challenge and another opportunity to rise above it or fail. She says, “Flowers were my escape. With flowers in my hands, perhaps I could survive.” I remain moved by Victoria’s use of her gift of understanding the language of flowers. I remain moved by her determination to survive. I have met a lot of you before, just meeting some of you tonight, but I hope this book gives you pleasure, and I hope you know each one of you has gifts that will help you through life’s challenges.
I thoroughly enjoyed my evening being a Book Giver. In retrospect, I realize I was wrong in presuming these women would be “light” or “non” readers. Many of them are very well-read and I walked away with an even lengthier “to be read” list than I went in with! But I hope our evening encouraged those who are consistent readers to consider taking the next step of forming a book club, and I hope it encouraged participants who aren’t particularly excited about reading to give it a try. If any book can pull them in and keep them interested, it’s this one.
Here’s our finished product as well as the special World Book Night copies of The Language of Flowers:
And I can’t leave out the dogs who participated (GCI has a greyhound rehabilitation program (among other animal programs) and the dogs participate with the women in order to work on socialization skills):
If you are interested in being a Book Giver for 2014, visit the WBN site and sign up for the newsletter. That’s the best way to get information.
Lastly, thank you to Warden Molina and Traci Norris at Gadsden Correctional for their help in setting this up. Thank you to Vanessa Diffenbaugh for being so supportive via social media. And thank you, most of all, to the women who spent time with me exploring the wonders of books, on this night represented by The Language of Flowers. Bellflowers are said to mean gratitude, so I leave you with bellflowers……
*Note: The “Grow” moss graffiti came from this source.