Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jen Wojtowicz

The Boy Who Grew Flowers
by Jen Wojtowicz
Illustrated by Steve Adams
Reading level: Ages 4-8
Hardcover: 32 pages
Publisher: Barefoot Books (2005)
ISBN-13: 978-1841486864
Buy This Book on Amazon

Sometimes, what makes a book truly inspiring is not so much the story as it is written, but the meaning behind why it was written; the message it conveys becoming the purpose for telling it.

The Boy Who Grew Flowers is a story of finding friendship and acceptance and embracing rather than shunning the differences that make us who we are. Granted, there are tremendous amounts of children's stories that accomplish this message, but few do it with the same level of sophistication. Straddling abstract and surreal ideas (a boy that grows flowers from his head?) with straightforward and simple plot (other children avoid him), the story appears timeless and classical, yet not unrelatable for contemporary children.

Admittedly, as I was reading it I noted that while as an adult I appreciate the beauty of the author's language, I wonder whether I would have fully grasped every angle of the story reading it as a child.

Simply put, sophisticated writing that handles abstract ideas can often go over the heads of the intended young audience. In this book, most of the sentences are easy to read and straightforward. But the key to the story's sophistication is not what is written, but what is not written. It requires some level of thinking beyond the literal words on the page to fully "get" the everything this story is saying. There are equal amounts show as there are tell.

"Why won't anyone talk to him? she asked. The others fell silent. The question rattled in their minds."
In three simple lines, the author describes that the other children 1: do not talk to the boy, and 2: Don't really know why they don't talk to him. She hits upon the sad truth of childhood discrimination: we often do not know WHY we treat each other as we do, gravitating more easily towards distaste than we do toward affection. This book does not seek to answer this question, but rather to show the good that comes when compassion is the only option.

The story handles the idea of differences between people with artful symbolism, and creates a universal, sweetly humane message that love and friendship and differences are wonderful things that make life worth living. Precisely the type of kind, heart-warming message I want my books to contain.

Steve Adams images are well-suited for this story. There is a simple mild surrealism in his exaggeration and manipulation of the human figure which serves the strangeness of the story. The colors are both vibrant and subdued, which also compliments the feeling of the story well. Overall, I like the illustrations though stylistically I feel they may go a bit too generic for my taste, especially when you consider that the boy grows flowers from his head. I envisioned the characters with slightly more personality---though not enough to destroy the wonderful and universal fairy-tale quality of the story.

While reading the story,  questions formed in my mind about children's literature in general: Why do we write for children in sophisticated ways (whether through language or abstract plot) that they may not fully grasp? Yes, they can follow the plot (boy has strange family, boy goes to school, boy has no friends, etc) But can they appreciate the beauty in the writing as much as the beauty in the story or pictures? And more importantly, is there really any harm in writing this way regardless--aren't children better served by being exposed to elevated, quality writing at a young age rather than not?

Reading is the gateway to understanding the possibilities of expression in language. If stories were only ever written in blatant, simplistic ways (i.e. "The brown fox ran through the field.") would we ever develop more expressive ways to form sentences? (i.e. "The fox, brown as the dirt beneath his muddy paws, hastily bounded through the dew-covered field.")

My answer is that I am thankful that there are authors creating high caliber stories that challenge young readers rather than placate or patronize.


Anonymous said...

I'm putting this one on my TBR book list. Wonderful illustrations!

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