Have You Ever Seen a Flower?

If there were a comic about my first sighting of Shawn Harris’s Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, it would show my eyes as wide as the child’s on the cover, my mouth open far enough to be visible through a mask, and an oversized cumulus-style thought cloud floating above, filled with a bolded exclamation point. It is a jolt of a book. The dense neon garden with its sharp negative space entranced me. Its lush symmetry and the light it emits combined to make me truly feel the titular question that hovers in the center. Had I ever seen a flower? Was I seeing one now?

There is so much one could talk about within this (literally) glowing, poetic book — existential metaphors, dramatic shifts in perspective, innovative use of palette and medium — but the reason I can so clearly envision the shiny Caldecott seal adding to the luminescence of its cover goes back to this initial feeling of being invited on to the visual ride. In this book celebrating aliveness, the medium is the message. Peeking out under the brightly adorned jacket, the board is covered in color so saturated that my students took turns holding it under their chins, faces radiating with hot pink. Witnessing this reminded me of one of my earliest picture book experiences, reading Blueberries for Sal and noticing that the words were printed in the same dark-blue ink as the illustrations. Before I could even read the text, the blueberry-blueness added to my own meaning-making, just as the ‘​​"kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!" sound of the blueberries hitting the pail did.

So much of the visual experience of this book is provided purely through its fluorescent colors, which aren’t used as pops or accents but as an entire palette to which our eyes adjust as we take in the story. As the child in the story waters her plant and waits and watches with cartoonishly large eyes for it to grow, we feel our own pupils shrinking to take in the light and energy of the illustrations. “These colors are making me feel floaty,” one student in my library classroom told me before we got any further than the title page.

We trace the child's journey from the big, gray city in which she lives as a tiny figure to “way down in the clover” of a faraway-feeling meadow in which she’s larger than life. The changing colors bring us along with her on the journey. When she later pricks her finger on a thorn, we see a full spread of bright red blood followed by the words “life is inside you,” and we are invited to feel that, too. As one student said, “The colors are flooding my heart and making it go boom boom boom.”

The way that Harris uses colored pencil is revelatory. It’s a special experience to share with children a book that is made using a medium familiar to them, because they are invested in seeing what that art tool can do. When looking together at the endpapers of tightly woven wavy lines — a close-up of the child’s hair — some students started using their hands on the rug to demonstrate how he might have created those. They pressed down so hard on their invisible colored pencils that multiple students complained of rug burn on their fingers.

When we reached the spread which shows the child smelling a flower — “Have you ever seen a flower using nothing but your nose?” — a student wondered aloud at just how many layers of colored pencil were needed to create the deep shadow on the girl's face. Another noted that the golden edge surrounding her silhouette shows us that the sun is shining behind her without us seeing the sun. On the next spread, which reveals what one might see when smelling a flower, children marveled at the negative space. They inched closer and closer to the pictures. “It’s like he drew it and then erased the lines," one student said. "Everything left white is part of the picture, even the sky!” said another. “I’ve never tried that before!” exclaimed one. These children’s experiences with the pictures — their insistence on actually touching the pages, because they were so sure they were physically textured; their imagining how they were created; and their eagerness to replicate the effects — all speak to the “excellence” and “distinction” with which Harris uses the medium as well as to the book’s display of “respect for children's understandings, abilities, and appreciations.”

Author Ocean Vuong says this about the experience of reading: “We collapse the ’'bridge,’ and the mind automatically forges synergy between the two images, so that all similes, once read, ‘act’ like metaphors in the mind.” Reading the pages that feature an expansive full-bleed spread of the flower’s veins — “Have you ever felt a flower? Do a flower petal’s veins feel like the veins beneath your skin?” — I saw that collapse happen in real time, as the children I was with started touching their own wrists and the tops of their hands. At that point the text becomes instructive (”place your hands on your stem”). The child in the book and the dandelion start to gradually resemble each other, the dandelion morphing from petaled flower into seed head and the child’s hair floating out from her head wildly, mane-like, in all directions.

As I reflect upon the children I read this with, who also unceremoniously became the flowers in the book (one even taking off their shoes so they could sink their “roots” more deeply into the “soil” of our library’s carpet), I think about how successful Harris has been in his creating a “collective unity of story-line.”

"I didn’t think about being like other things before. Like that I could actually be another thing,” one student said at the book's close, their arms splayed out like branches.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Have You Ever Seen a Flower? here.]

Emily Prabhaker
Emily Prabhaker
Emily Prabhaker is the librarian at Campus School of Smith College.

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