Reading notes: The Golden Glow

The cover of my copy of ‘The Golden Glow’, by Benjamin Flouw

The Golden Glow, by Benjamin Flouw, has become one of my all-time favorite picture books.

If I remember right, I stumbled across it in a bookstore in Vermont while on vacation one year. It was sitting there, face-out, on a shelf and the cover illustration stopped me in my tracks.

I’ve found some real gems this way, wandering through a shop in some city I’m seeing for the first time. A book I’ve found becomes part of the story of the trip — part of the flush of discovery of new scenery and sounds and smells. My feet moving over foreign sidewalks, my eyes moving over new words. A new patch of the world revealing itself. I live for that.

Maybe the experience of finding a book this way lends a gloss to my experience of it. Maybe it makes me sentimental. That’s okay. The way a book comes into my life, I think, matters as much to me as what it says inside. Or, to put it in a catchier way: the story ‘outside’ the book the matters as much to me as the story inside it.

Anyway, I bought this copy of The Golden Glow, ostensibly, for my daughter, who was about 5 then. But I’ve ended up with stronger feelings for it than she does. In fact she’ll pick it, now and then, as her bedtime story because, she says, ‘I know this is one of your favorites, Dad.’ This makes me proud not only because it’s a kind gesture but because she’s noticed.

There’s something about this book that transports me every time I open it. I love the stunning illustrations; the serene, simple story; the colors and design.

An inside spread of my copy of ‘The Golden Glow’ illustrating some of Fox’s favorite local flowers, including anemones, purple saxifrage, and mountain sorrel.

It’s about a fox named, fitting enough, Fox. Fox is a scientist and explorer. He loves botany and collects plant specimens, documenting them in his books. At the beginning of the story, he learns about a rare flower called the Golden Glow and decides, right then and there, that he needs to go find one. He gathers his gear and sets off early the next morning, with his pack, on a trek that takes him to the peak of a nearby mountain.

He reaches the peak near sunset. He pitches his tent, sits down to admire the view and (spoiler alert), discovers the flower under some snow by his paw. Instead of picking it, he decides to leave it there and document it. He makes some drawings and adds the picture to his field guide when he gets home.

An inside spread of my copy of ‘The Golden Glow’: an illustrated map of Fox’s journey, showing the zones of a mountain (foothill zone, montane zone, subalpine zone, alpine zone, and snow zone).

Fox is basically everything I want to be when I grow up. I want to hike in the mountains and find rare flowers. I want to sit on logs and eat grape-pâté sandwiches. I’d like to run into friends like Wolf and Bear in the woods. The story makes me feel a complicated brew of emotions I struggle to articulate. Some mix of wonder and longing and elation and maybe even a little sadness. It makes me wish that my life was simpler — and, often, the thought follows that maybe my life is this simple, if only I could manage to quiet my restless mind and see it clearly.

I especially love the illustrations. Flouw has a lovely way of breaking complex forms down into simple geometric parts. Jagged triangles for spruce branches; diamond flower petals; polygonal shaded boulders; pyramidal mountains with beautiful atmospheric perspective. He can render a landscape in a way that feels instantly recognizable,(Note: I’ve never been there, but the Fox’s home reminds me of western Canada, maybe Vancouver, based on photos local friends have shown me. I thought the red maple leaf on Bear’s cap is maybe a hint toward this. But Flouw himself lives in Marseille, so maybe Fox’s mountains are the Alps.)but also slightly mysterious. Like the hinted outlines of a dream that your mind fills in with its memories and impressions. A suggestion of something bigger or deeper, like a cloud reflected in a still pond.

I find myself poring over the drawings, lost in a world just beyond the glowing mountains.

An inside spread of my copy of ‘The Golden Glow’. Fox sits on the peak of a mountain, watching the sun set. Peaks poke through the clouds in the distance.