Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose by first time author Diana Leszczynski (subject of my first ever author interview) is one of those rare books that, thanks to an intriguing title and artwork by the amazingly talented and prolific Brandon Dorman, illustrator of one of my all-time favorite jackets for one of the best books written last year, Newbery Honor winner Savvy by Ingrid Law, jumps off the shelf and into your hands. Once it's there, thanks to Diana Leszczynski's wonderful writing, you just can't put it down.
As I read Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose bits and pieces reminded me of so many other wonderful books that I have loved. Like the main character of Savvy, Mississippi Beaumont, Fern is the recipient of a unique gift on her thirteenth birthday. The wickedly evil, child hating antagonists in the book reminded me of some of the best aspects of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events as well as al most everything by Roald Dahl. The Dickensian names (you can't beat "Fern Verdant' for it's internal rhyme, either) and occasional aside to parents (Joan Baez Middle School in Fern's new hometown of Nedlaw, Oregon, had me and my husband laughing out loud one night) are also reminiscent of Snicket and Dahl. And, the boatload of orphans with attitude, while definitely Snicket-like also called to mind the heroes of Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society and it's sequels. Whatever similarities there are to other works of young adult fiction, Diana Leszczynski's descriptively lush writing and ability to weave a suspenseful plot with rich characters makes Fern's story completely new and winning from start to finish.
The child of boatnists, Fern's father, Olivier Verdant, is an expert on ferns (thus her name) who originates from France and her mother, Lily Verdant, is a world renowned rescuer of endangered plant species. Because of her expertise, Lily travels often and Fern grows to resent this, wondering why her mother even bothered to have a kid if she wasn't going to be around much. Because of his discovery of a new species of fern, the family packs up and moves across the country to Nedlaw (thank you to my husband for pointing out to me that "Nedlaw" is "Walden" spelled backwards - another little inside joke for us adults...) so that Olivier can study this fern more thoroughly, separating Fern from her best friend, also a daughter of botanists, Ivy. Things go from bad to worse for Fern as her mother departs on yet another rescue mission right before her thirteenth birthday then disappears, seemingly washed out to sea as she tried to rescue the valuable and rare Silver Rose. Grandmamma Lisette arrives from Paris to help her son and granddaughter through this difficult time with her buttery homemade chocolate croissants and comforting hugs, but Fern stumbles into messy social situation at school that is only made worse by her birthday.
Things begin to change, if not necessarily improve for Fern when she finally turns thirteen and, through a series of funny mishaps, realizes that she can communicate with plants. She can hear their thoughts. She can hear the grass scream as she jumps on it. More importantly, she can talk to the plants and they to her, which is how she receives a long distance message from her mother that starts her on a journey that will end on the other side of the world. But, not without the interference of some pretty (comically) bad guys first. When her father sees her talking to the Weeping Willow tree in the yard, he and Grandmamma decide that Fern needs serious help and he puts her in NITPIC - the Nedlaw Institute for the Treatment and Prevention of Insanity in Children - under the care of the hypnosis-crazy Dr Marita Von Svenson. This is exactly where Henry Saagwalla, the evil, nature hating mastermind behind the disappearance of Lily Verdant wants Fern.
After Fern's stormy escape from NITPIC, aided by some enormous Douglas Fir trees lining the driveway, she sets off on an odyssey of sorts that reunites her with her fellow NITPIC inmate the orphan Francesca, her fourteen year old bother Anthony, captain of the Porpoise, and a handful of orphans who refuse to trust Fern because she has parents. The crew of the Porpoise is in possession of a Petal from the Silver Rose, hoping they can find the rose it came from and sell it for enough money remain independently at sea. Fortunately for Fern, she can communicate with the Petal, which comes in handy more than once. The climax of the book takes place on the extremely verdant island of Sri Lanka where Lily is being held captive, in a coma, and where the evil genius has a lair worthy of any James Bond baddie. Fern does her best to rescue her mother and the Silver Rose while at the same time keeping their powers secret for, as she learns early on, anyone in possession of the power to communicate with plants will lose that power if they tell another person about it. She experiences failure in one of these areas and is deeply saddened but responds to her failure and loss with a wonderful turn of maturity and compassion that makes you love her all the more.
Diana Leszczynski creates a brave. conflicted, determined character in Fern. I barely scratched the surface describing the the amazing opportunities that come Fern's way once she can communicate with plants. While reading Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose I began to look at the natural world around me a little bit differently as I walked my dogs every morning. There is one point in the book when Fern is scooped up by a Eucalyptus tree somewhere in Northern California. She spends a night and a day in the leafy arms of the tree (who happens to have an Australian accent) being cared for by it. Leszczynski's writing is so visual that I found I could see Fern and her tree home perfectly in my mind's eye. I never had a treehouse as a kid and always wanted one, I still do. I think that may have caused me to be especially entranced by this part of the book. Also, one of my favorite characters in Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose I have yet to mention is Andrew Wedgie, a devoted canvaser for Trees Pleese, an organization that tries to call attention to the plight of trees. Andrew makes the bad decision to ring the doorbell of Henry Saagwalla who kidnaps him and gives him serums that make him follow orders without question and gradually turn into a tree. Before Lily learns his name she calls him the Chia Man because his hair is green and growing like an alfalfa sprout afro. Is Andrew a good guy or a bad guy? A tree or a man?
This book could easily be marketed as an "Environmentally Friendly" "Green" book. In fact, Leszczynski describes, through Fern's eyes, Lily in this way; she "was beautiful, but she dressed with no regard for fashion. She wore shoes with heels that went down instead of up, and clothes that were baggy and bland. Lily had to know exactly how each person who made her clothes was treated in their place of work. How much were they paid? Were their working conditions safe and sanitary? Lily needed to know that they were treated fairly in order to buy their goods. Shopping with Lily was excruciatingly embarrassing for Fern." Leszczynski walks a fine line between poking fun at and presenting lifestyle choices, like being the family's vegetarianism, that are made out of respect for the earth and nature. The Verdant's are not kooky and they are not hippies but people with solid reasons for why they lead the lives they do. Of course Fern, who is at an age when most want to fit in instead of stand out in a crowd, will find Lily's choices aggravating at times. This book could have gone in such a different direction and been a dry, dogmatic primer on how to be earth friendly. Instead, it is full of adventure and humor and lush with descriptive details about the natural world that surrounds us. Hopefully through these descriptions readers will be enlightened to new ways of looking at and treating the world around them, just as Fern is educated and enlightened by her new found ability to talk to plants.
Fern Verdant & the Silver Rose will be coming out in paperback in May of 2010. Hopefully there will be a new Fern Verdant adventure hitting the shelves at the same time! I can't wait to read more and travel to new places with Fern - maybe even to the Tunisian garden where the teal Tulip is crying out for help?
Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:
Operation Redwood by S Terrell French
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle