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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

The Language of Flowers

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s gorgeous debut novel is about an 18-year-old girl who ages out of the foster care system. She begins the book homeless on the streets of San Francisco. The thing that keeps her grounded, indeed the way she is comfortable communicating with the world, is the Victorian language of flowers. Appropriately, her name is Victoria. Victoria has a gift for flowers, and one of the novel’s immediate pleasures is watching her discover her talent working as the assistant to a florist.

The juxtaposition of this old-fashioned language and the urban setting of the novel is particularly touching. The language is a secret part of Victoria, it feels almost as if it has sheltered her. So she is taken aback when she realizes that the attractive flower-seller in the market speaks it too — they pass messages back and forth by giving each other significant flowers.

However, the meaning of each flower is not as straight-forward and trustworthy as she was taught as a young girl, something she learns while researching at the San Francisco Public Library.

Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh began mentoring foster kids when she was only 23. She recently established the Camellia Network, which supports 18-21 year-olds transitioning from foster care.

Random House put together a lovely webpage for this book, which includes a flower dictionary compiled by the author and a video of the author talking about her book.

I believe this novel will appeal to a great variety of readers. Teens, obviously, but I also look forward to recommending this one to my faculty/staff bookgroup at school.

DIFFENBAUGH, Vanessa. The Language of Flowers. 308p. Ballantine. Aug. 2011. Tr $25. ISBN 978-0-345-52554-3. LC number unavailable.  The Language of Flowers

Adult/High School–Chapters that alternate between Victoria’s past as a foster child and present as a semi-homeless 18-year-old reveal secrets and unravel mysteries and create a narrative that is richly textured and hard to put down. As layers of meaning unfold and overlap, past and present collapse into stunning insight about Victoria and her life. She finds love, understanding, and acceptance with her foster mom, Elizabeth, at age 8, so something truly horrific must have occurred to explain why she is aging out of a group home 10 years later. In the present, the young woman finds her first job in a florist shop, putting to use the language of flowers that she learned from Elizabeth, and she finds a way to thrive and connect through it. She creates bouquets for sad men wanting to reconnect with daughters, lonely wives, and anxious brides.  She learns to work with marriages that she knows will last so as to keep her business successful and in demand. It is ironic yet thoroughly believable that despite all her success with other people’s relationships, her own are disconnected and distant. Teens will relate to the book: there’s a push/pull romance, teen pregnancy, lots of feeling outcast and separate yet never descending into victimhood. On top of that, it’s smart, emotionally sophisticated, realistic, and beautifully written. Other books have explored the experiences of foster and abandoned youth, including Janet Fitch’s White Oleander (Little Brown, 2001) and Billie Letts’s Where the Heart Is (Warner, 1998). The Language of Flowers soars above them.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA

Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.


  1. Jane Ritter says:

    This is an unforgettable book that, like Angela, I plan to recommend to all my colleagues. As Amy says, this is a beautifully written book–the cast of characters are each in their own way flawed, yet profoundly likable and memorable. Victoria’s fierce determination reminded me of Margo, the main character in another unforgettable book, Once Upon a River (also reviewed in this blog). There is much to savor in The Language of Flowers and I hope it finds its way into the hands of teen and adult readers everywhere.

  2. amy cheney says:

    I just wish the cover was better!!! It would have more teen appeal with a better cover that wasn’t so curlique and gardener -ish

  3. Angela Carstensen says:

    Amy, you are so right about that! The cover does not represent the book terribly well either.

  4. Thank you for your wonderful review. I really do hope that young adults will read and enjoy my book–I really appreciate you spreading the word. In terms of covers, I think teens might enjoy the UK cover better. You can see it here

    If you send me an address I would be happy to send you one!

    • Angela Carstensen says:

      Thank you, Vanessa. I think you’re right — the UK cover does have more immediate appeal for young readers. Maybe the US paperback will follow its lead.

      And I have a feeling that word of mouth between teen readers and hand-selling in bookstores and libraries will ensure that teens hear about it here in the states. Congratulations on a wonderful book!

  5. amy cheney says:

    Yah, way better … not totally perfect (needs to be a bit GRITTIER). Still, the one eye phenomena is something we used to joke about in Quick Picks – One Eye! It’s gonna GO!

    Vanessa, I’d love a copy to see if my teens will pick it up. But what will really sell your book here is you coming to visit. Possible?

    Amy Cheney
    Write to Read • Juvenile Hall Library & Literacy

    current favorite book:​=LWztk_QB5_U

    2012 Alex Awards Committee Member

    2500 Fairmont Drive
    San Leandro, CA 94578
    510.667.4347 (office)

    Write to Read – Juvenile Justice Center is an Alameda County Library program in partnership with the Alameda County Office of Education and the Alameda County Probation Department

    “I don’t feel like Write to Read just gave me a book and asked me to read; I feel like they gave me a book and told me to dream, to see a better life for me.” Shannon, former detainee

  6. Wow Amy! You are doing great work. I will send a few books and would also love to come and meet kids and support your efforts. My fall tour is pretty well booked but I come to California most every summer so perhaps we can make some time then. In the meantime, I do have a few events close to you and if you can bring some of your students I would be happy to give them some free books (I am giving 10 away to kids who come to my events). Here are my Bay Area events. Hope you can make it.

    Friday, September 23
    12:00 pm
    Lunch, Talk & Signing
    Rakestraw Books
    522 Hartz Avenue
    Danville, CA 94526

    7:00 pm
    Talk & Signing
    A Great Good Place for Books
    6120 LaSalle Ave.
    Oakland, CA 94611

  7. amy cheney says:

    hi Vanessa – my students are locked down! So can’t come out. Let me know if you can fit it in… here’s my email so we don’t take up space on this blog!

  8. Does anyone know what type of AR level this book would have?

  9. I’ve heard mixed reviews about this book. Not sure if I should invest the time or not. And yes, that cover is super blah.