The inspiration for the text and illustrations in Levi Pinfold’s Greenling was, the book jacket tells us, “a chili plant growing through a crack in the concrete of his back step.” This 2015 book successfully captures those wondrous and innocent abilities of the organic: to both permeate its surroundings and to change hearts. Although the book has a wide lexical and moral scope, there is much for children of all ages to explore.
The book takes on the tone of a fable as it follows an elderly farming couple named Mr. and Mrs. Barleycorn and their moral understandings of nature. Mr. Barleycorn first discovers a curious, opalescent flower bud at the entrance to a water drainage pipe, and upon finding a roly-poly green baby inside, takes it home to his wife.
Mrs. Barleycorn is most displeased with the child, saying, “It belongs to the wild, then, and back to the land it should go.” She is preoccupied with the impediments to her daily life: when apple trees sprout in her living room, she is concerned with her television; when they invade the car, she worries about going shopping. The pages of her distrust are some of the most colorful in the book, as the natural color palette of soft greens, beiges, and light rose tints takes on the hues of bright yellow sunflowers and deep purple foxglove.
It is only when the climax of the story occurs, and a new edge of the conflict is unfolded, that Mrs. Barelycorn’s heart begins to change. “The boy is just strange, not bad … we should welcome this Greenling into our house, we’ve been living in his all along!” cries the woman. Once she has this revelation, the Greenling casts a “spell” on the land, causing it to flourish with vegetation.
The high-level diction and elevated syntax, both here and throughout the book, necessitate inference. When the Greenling casts his spell, for example, he is “suddenly flowering with all the attention,” an unusual combination of biology, embarrassment, and beauty. With the line, “An old magic word, ling since forgotten, casts an old spell for weeks,” young children might be preoccupied with the idea of a spell and magic, losing the main thread of nature in favor of thinking of the Greenling as a witch or wizard. “You’re beginning to buzz like a drone,” presents a rare word that children might associate with electronics, and other words like “cuisine,” and “hurled,” are given few context clues. For these reasons, younger children might enjoy doing a “picture walk” through the book, reveling in its natural color palette and intricate mixed-media illustrations. Indicating facial expressions, changes in scenery, or posing high-level and open-ended questions could help early primary children to understand the content of the book. Older children could then parse through the short, poetic stanzas and their interpretations in more depth.
The moral of the story could be interpreted as an environmentalist, vegetarian, or even just as kindness. The final page includes reference to the coming spring, implying that the Greenling was the catalyst for the seasons; this explanation of natural phenomena ties together the mythic tones. With the many layers of meaning in the text and images, children of every age can surely find hours of fascination in the artistry of the book.