I love the cozy, whimsical, slightly melancholy, illustrations in The Boy Who Grew Flowers (2005), which is cleverly written by Jen Wojtowicz and beautifully illustrated by Steve Adams. The cover depicts a pinkish boy with blushing cheeks, flowers in one hand, green shoes in the other. This is a love story about two children who are equally kind and, as we learn at the book’s end, share one of the same differences, which makes them perfectly normal to each other, and perfect for each other.
The boy, Rink Bowagon, lives on Lonesome Mountain with the other Bowagons. According to the townspeople the “clan was a hotbed of strange and exotic talents.” These talents included shapeshifting and snake taming. The protagonist, Rink, had a special talent of his own, “during the full moon he sprouted flowers all over his body.”
At school, rumors of Rink’s family and his own shyness relegated him to the back of the classroom, ignored by peers and teachers. That is until a new girl, Angelina Quiz, showed up at the school. Angelina’s family was in “the ballroom dancing business and had just moved from Tuscaloosa.” She had “an easy manner, a luminous smile, and her right leg was shorter than her left by an inch.” This slight difference was exasperated by the fact that Angelina was surrounded by dancers but was unable to dance. None of her peers at school seem concerned about her leg length discrepancy.
Angelina quickly grew curious about Rink and the other students were eager to share stories of his family’s eccentricities. Unperturbed, she listened to the stories and asked why no one talked to Rink, clearly demonstrating that his family’s odd habits were no excuse. The children could not respond.
Time passed, and a school dance was announced. Although Angelina was invited to attend by several classmates (and I appreciate the gender neutrality of Wojtowicz’s word choice) she rejected each invitation, simply stating that she wouldn’t be much of a partner.
Rink overheard her wistful rejections and slipped away from the classroom. Angelina was the only one who noticed his absence. In fact: “She was amazed at how his absence could take the shine off such a pretty sunny day.”
At home on Lonesome Mountain, Rink collected random objects: needle, thread, old saddle, snake skin. He then sat down and began to think about Angelina’s feet, especially “the inch of space between her right foot and the floor.” He spent days working on a pair of shoes with a right heel one inch thicker than the left. When his project was completed he imagined Angelina dancing and though it was not a full moon “he sprouted a bunch of wild pink roses from the top of his head.”
Rink brought his finished project to Angelina’s home.
Inside the house, Angelina and her mother worked on a red tango dress as Angelina thought about Rink’s absence from school. A knock on the door quickly changed her mood. Rink was there with an arm full of pink roses and green shoes dangling from his hand. He gave Angelina the shoes and explained that she would dance fine while wearing them. Angelina quickly tried them on and began to dance.
The two children are then shown outside dancing together below a steely blue sky. Angelina asked Rink to be her partner at the school dance and although he hesitated, embarrassed by his lack of dance skills, she assured him she would teach him the moves she learned watching her family. The isolation both children felt within their families prompted a fast intimacy.
After the dance Rink shared his secret skill with Angelina who delightedly shared that the flowers she wore behind her right ear sprout from her head.
The text closes with a sweet happy ending, comforting in its familiarity. It is twenty-five years later, and the children, now grown, are married with children of their own, and a successful flower business.
One of the things I enjoy most about the text is its understated recognition of adult complicity in the ostracization of “different” children. Angelina and Rink are isolated in their families; Rink is also invisible at school.
The Boy Who Grew Flowers also tells a story about the difference one person can make in the life of another, and how surprising people can be if you make the effort to learn about them. Although Angelina’s leg length discrepancy could have been the focal point of the text, Wojtowicz does not foreground this difference, instead placing it at the end of a long list of characteristics, attributed to the girl when she is first introduced.
This is a sweet, romantic story that straddles the line between familiar and unfamiliar beautifully. It’s a love story both like and unlike any other.