The Language of Flowers: Characters in Bloom

by Elizabeth Oosterheert

Image courtesy of Posterspy.com

In an unparalleled school year…

One of the books that spoke profoundly to my students was Patrick Ness’ award winning story of love and loss, A Monster Calls. If you’ve never read it, this book would be an excellent addition to your summer reading list. I promise you’ll be moved by the story’s symmetry, truth, and Jim Kay’s breathtaking illustrations. In addition, the book is framed around four tales of life and death that are anything but average, all available on YouTube as short videos excerpted from the feature film starring Louis MacDougall, Liam Neeson and Felicity Jones.

One of the main characters in A Monster Calls is an ancient monster formed from a yew tree who comes to bring truth through stories and healing. Since much of the narrative is framed around a massive tree, it was natural to invite my students to analyze characters using the language of flowers or “floriography,” the Victorian era’s version of sending a snap or a text message. Thanks to Michael W. Smith & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements for introducing me to this approach!

In Victorian society, one could express admiration or disdain for another person by sending a particular floral arrangement. Each flower had its own meaning, and in the context of our classrooms, this transfers seamlessly to literary studies. The beauty of this kind of response is that it works with any book study in which one of our goals is to challenge students to cultivate their knowledge of characterization and metaphorical thinking.

As Kate Roberts wisely suggests in her book A Novel Approach, one of the best things we can do as teachers of English language arts is give our students the books they need, and then use those books to teach them skills that can be applied to multiple texts, rather than teaching one book for weeks on end, plowing through every line and extracting all of the joy from the novel in the process.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Floriography is a creative way to invite students into analysis and inference. It begins by giving students access to charts (readily available online from a variety of sites) that link flowers with different meanings. For example, heliotrope means devotion, while a yellow carnation represents rejection. I use different charts to give students a guide for creating character “bouquets” composed of flowers that represent traits (both qualities and flaws) of principal or supporting characters in a whole class text, or a novel that a student has chosen to read independently or as part of a book club.

Usually, I will ask students to choose three flowers for a character, and then provide rationales for each of their choices. Often, students will end up choosing more than three flowers once they get into the “rhythm” of this type of response. Floriography also works well as a way of inviting students to compare and contrast characters.

While I was skeptical the first time I tried this approach, I learned that students appreciated having the tangible floral “frame” to explore metaphor and construct meaning. Soon, when we read together, they were asking if they could create character bouquets as a way of expressing important elements they noticed such as character motivation and relationships. 

A copy of the job sheet that I shared with students the first time we tried character bouquets with A Monster Calls is linked here.  Students enjoy creating character bouquets collaboratively as well as individually. My students Chloe and Josie wrote character bouquets linked here.

Character bouquets are also an excellent way to analyze character development in short stories when there is a particular character who changes dramatically in a short time, such as in Shirley Jackson’s “Louisa, Please Come Home,” a thriller that my eighth graders enjoy reading when we study Jackson’s iconic works.

What are your favorite ways to invite students into deeper thinking about story and characters?

Share your ideas in the comments, or email me at oosterheerte@pellachristian.net.

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director in central Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. She is currently writing an adaptation of Arabian Nights for performance in November 2021.

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