Realities of foster care, as told by flowers

Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Vanessa Diffenbaugh

At one point in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, the prickly protagonist describes herself as a “thistle-peony-basil kind of girl.”

Victoria Jones, a former foster child, doesn’t mean she’d like a bouquet of blossoms. Instead, she’s suggesting that the principles those posies signify — misanthropy, anger and hate — define her very being.

Diffenbaugh’s book, “The Language of Flowers,” takes its title from the Victorian-era language of flowers, a nonverbal form of communication that uses plants to send coded messages.

Under this charmingly quaint system, a sprig of mistletoe means “I surmount all obstacles,” while a sunflower signifies “false riches” and dahlias declare “dignity.”

“It felt like the right way for (Victoria) to communicate,” explained Diffenbaugh, who speak about “The Language of Flowers” on Wednesday at Cuesta College. Her appearance is part of the school’s annual Book of the Year program.

Diffenbaugh, who studied creative writing and education at Stanford University, said she wrote “The Language of Flowers” in part to shed light on the realities of the foster care system.

“In general, not just in fiction but in the media, there are the same stories you hear over and over again,” she said, either grim accounts of abusive parents and desperate children, or “super super success stories” such as that of Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher, whose journey from foster kid to football star is depicted in the 2009 movie “The Blind Side.”

Diffenbaugh and her educator husband, P.K., have seen both sides of the spectrum.

The couple was in their early 20s when a family of young girls they were mentoring as low-income youth entered the foster system. For more than a year, they watched as the sisters moved from home to home, gradually becoming separated.

That experience, coupled with years working with disadvantaged youth, inspired the Diffenbaughs to invite their eldest child, Tre’von Lyle, into their home as a foster child. Tre’von, who joined the family as a high school freshman, is currently attending New York University.

Diffenbaugh described writing “The Language of Flowers” as “a super-intense emotional experience.”

“The character of Victoria just came to me whole and very, very strongly,” the Cambridge, Mass., author added. “I wanted to tell her story.”

Weaving together past and present, the novel’s first-person narrative first encounters Victoria, who’s spent her childhood in a series of foster homes, at age 10.

Only Elizabeth, a no-nonsense farmer with a generous spirit, is able to reach this sullen, scared child. But Elizabeth’s attempts to reconnect with her sister Catherine threaten to tear apart the fledgling family she’s created with Victoria.

By the time Victoria turns 18 and leaves the foster care system, she has no home, no job and nowhere to turn — until she starts working at a San Francisco flower shop. Given the chance at a new life, the solitary young woman must overcome her inner fears and learn to trust again.

According to Diffenbaugh, Victoria is a “total composite” of foster children she’s encountered over the years.

Asked which character she most resembles, Diffenbaugh acknowledged that “there was a lot of me in Elizabeth” in early drafts of the novel.

“The first Elizabeth that I wrote was really, really perfect, smart and funny,” she said. “I read it and I realized, ‘Oh, I just wrote the person I want to be, not the person I am.’ ”

One trait Diffenbaugh does share is her love of the language of flowers.

The author’s own introduction came in the form of an illustrated dictionary by Kate Greenaway that she discovered at a Chico bookstore at age 16.

“It just seemed like this well-kept secret, this beautiful language that was really popular hundreds of years ago,” she recalled. “I thought it was really sweet and charming and romantic.”

Since the meanings of plants and flowers vary depending on the source, Diffenbaugh had to consult multiple guides. She even added a tropical bloom to her flower dictionary — bougainvillea, which means “passion.”

So far, readers are responding well to “The Language of Flowers,” which was published in 2011 by Ballantine Books, a Random House Publishing Group imprint.

The book, which has spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times’ Best Sellers list, has earned accolades from the likes of Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Calling the book “powerful and evocative,” Chicago Tribune critic Julia Keller wrote, “ ‘The Language of Flowers’ uses green, growing things so say something fresh and special about human life.”

The success of “The Language of Flowers” has helped draw attention to the organization Diffenbaugh founded with brand strategist Isis Dallis Keigwin, the Camelia Network, which is dedicated to helping youth make a successful transition from foster care to adulthood. The support network’s floral namesake means “my destiny is in your hands.”

Diffenbaugh hopes Victoria’s story will encourage readers to take a fresh look at foster care.

“We don’t often have the opportunity to go deep into somebody’s psyche,” she said. “I wanted people not necessarily to like her, but to care about what happens to her, to understand her and root for her.”

Lecture and book signing

Vanessa Diffenbaugh will speak Wednesday about her book “The Language of Flowers,” followed by a reception and book signing, at Cuesta College’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo. The free event lasts from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information, call Carina Love at 546-3100, ext. 2688, or visit

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune