Vanessa Diffenbaugh has always known that she would be a writer. From the time that she began to form words on paper, she could be found bent over her diary, filling pages with her interpretation of the world.
Years later, Diffenbaugh’s 2011 debut novel “The Language of Flowers” would become a New York Times Bestseller, and this year it was chosen as the official 2013 selection of Read Across McKinney, a community program sponsored by Friends of the McKinney Library.
Read Across McKinney partnered with McKinney ISD for the first time this year and invited Diffenbaugh to McKinney Boyd High School on Friday, October 18 to talk with a group of 150 Boyd and Faubion Middle School AVID and PALS students—some of them aspiring writers— about the writing process, her journey as a writer and her passion for helping foster kids, a fervor that surpasses perhaps even her love of the written word.
In a style that was honest, humorous and poignant, Diffenbaugh described her childhood obsession with writing that earned her the nickname “Wacko,” her discovery of the language of flowers (a real language she stumbled upon in an obscure book while in high school), becoming a foster parent and how they all conspired to give birth to “The Language of Flowers.”
“So here I was at home,” Diffenbaugh said of the novel’s origin, “with my two babies and my two teenagers and plenty of chaos, as you can imagine. But, here I was writing everyday like I had done my whole life. And that was when I wrote ‘The Language of Flowers’. My idea with the book was to tell the true story of foster care.”
Diffenbaugh’s experience as a foster parent wasn’t “The Blindside,” she said, nor was it a tragic story of neglect and abuse often reported in the news. “For me as a foster parent, I felt like neither of those stories were true,” Diffenbaugh told her audience. “And, I wanted to write the story about two people who are not perfect, that are coming together and are trying to love each other.”
One of those people is protagonist Victoria Jones, a foster child who finds herself thrust suddenly into the world at age 18 as she struggles to develop meaningful, lasting relationships and relies upon the language of flowers to communicate her feelings.
As with most authors, Diffenbaugh’s path to literary success was not a straight line. After facing initial rejection and several rewrites, “The Language of Flowers” eventually became a national sensation, but Diffenbaugh’s most poignant experience through all of the attendant hoopla has been found in the opportunity to use the novel as a platform to educate people about foster kids.
“For me, the absolute most impactful time as a writer with this book has been having the opportunity to go around and speak to people about foster care and about my life with all these kids. A lot of people in our society don’t even know what foster care is. I have people come up to me all the time and say, ‘Don’t kids still live in orphanages?’ So many people in our country have no idea what happens to kids in our society who are neglected or abused.”
And what happens to most of them at age 18 is that—like Victoria Jones—they are forced to exit from the foster care system even if they have nowhere else to go. So, in 2010 Diffenbaugh co-founded an organization called the Camellia Network to help young adults transition to life after foster care. Thus far, the organization has helped 201 foster children navigate the journey from foster care to college.
Diffenbaugh’s ultimate message to her audience at Boyd was related through the story of a teenage girl that she met at a speaking event—an orphan, who had read Diffenbaugh’s book. Pulling Diffenbaugh aside, the girl asked how she can love anyone if nobody loves her.
“That’s exactly why I wrote that book,” Diffenbaugh said. Diffenbaugh described how she sat the girl down, drew a picture of any empty glass in the girl’s journal and told her, “You believe that you’re the empty glass, and you have to sit around and wait until someone comes and pours the love inside so that you can then give it out, right? I believe you’re already full. That’s what I believe, and that’s what this book is about. Learning to see that it’s already there, and it’s already inside you.”
Boyd librarian Sheila Frink helped organize the event at Boyd and couldn’t have been more pleased to have Diffenbaugh speak. “We’ve been meeting and planning for over a year [with Read Across McKinney]. It was just a great collaborative effort, and it was nice to be included—the school with the city,” Frink said.
“From the MISD standpoint, we wanted to be a part of Read Across McKinney to model to our students what the real world is like and to give them an opportunity to experience a bestselling author and her journey through becoming an author and her journey through supporting the foster care program,” she said.
“I just hope to be real and relatable,” Diffenbaugh said afterward. “So for people who want to be writers, I try to tell them what I know and make them feel like it’s ok to be different and do what you love. For other kids, I think it’s important to spread the word a little bit about foster care and what some of their peers might be going through. They might not have any idea, you know, what [foster kids] might be facing at 18 that’s very different from what other kids are facing at 18.”
And while her novel revolves, at least in part, around the curious language of flowers, what comes across very clearly when Diffenbaugh speaks is that everybody is important and that everybody has something to share with the world.
Story submitted by Shane Mauldin