The Paper-Flower Tree: An Illustrated Ode to the Courage of Withstanding Cynicism and the Generative Power of the Affectionate Imagination
By Maria Popova
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,” William Blake wrote in his spectacular 1799 defense of the imagination. More than a century and a half later, illustrator and designer Jacqueline Ayer (May 2, 1930–May 20, 2012) offered a beautiful allegorical counterpart to Blake’s timeless message in her 1962 masterpiece The Paper-Flower Tree (public library) — a warm and whimsically illustrated parable about the moral courage of withstanding cynicism and the generative power of the affectionate imagination.
As vibrant and vitalizing as the tales Ayer imagines in her children’s books is her own true story. Born to first-generation Jamaican immigrants in New York City, Jacqueline grew up in the “Coops” — a communist-inspired cooperative for garment workers in the Bronx. Her father, a graphic artist and the founder of the first licensed modeling agency for black women, taught her to draw. Her mother, a sample cutter, imbued her with an uncommon aptitude for pattern and color. In the 1940s, Jacqueline enrolled in Harlem’s iconic public High School of Music & Art, whose alumni include cartoonist Al Jaffe, graphic designer Milton Glaser, and banjoist Bela Fleck.
After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in fine art, she continued her studies in Paris, where she became a fashion illustrator and starred in a Dadaist film alongside Man Ray. Her singularly imaginative artwork attracted the attention of designer Christian Dior and Vogue Paris editor Michel de Brunhoff, who procured for her an appointment as fashion illustrator for Vogue in New York. There, she supplemented her meager salary — for those were the days before the Equal Pay uprising that revolutionized the modern workplace, and she was a woman of color — by illustrating for the department store Bonwit Teller alongside young Andy Warhol.
Three years later, Jacqueline went back to Paris on vacation and fell in love with Fred Ayer — a young American who had just returned from Burma and had grown besotted with the cultures of the East. The couple got married and began traveling through East Asia until they finally settled in Thailand, where Ayer raised her two daughters and drew incessantly as she traversed the strange, hot, fragrant wonderland of Bangkok on foot along the sidewalks, on scooter in the streets, on boat via the canals. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, she launched the fashion and fabric company Design-Thai, which printed her vibrant designs onto silk and cotton using traditional Thai craftsmanship.
Ayer spent the remaining years of her life translating her distinctive aesthetic into home furnishings for New York and London’s glamorous department stores, working for the Indian government under Indira Gandhi to help develop the country’s traditional textile crafts, and creating children’s books of uncommon beauty and emotional intelligence. She was only thirty-one when she won the 1961 Gold Medal of the Society of Illustrators, considered the Oscars of illustration.
The Paper-Flower Tree, originally published in 1962 and now lovingly resurrected by my friends of Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion, is one of four books about Thailand Ayer wrote and illustrated, like Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss, for her own children.
It tells the story of a little girl named Miss Moon, who lives under “the enormous blue sky” of rural Thailand and wanders the horizonless rice fields with her baby brother.
One day, a most unusual sight punctuates the noonday torpor of the village. Ayer writes:
Miss Moon saw a little man in the distance, puffing and blowing as he walked slowly along. He carried over his shoulder a bamboo stick, on which were tied colored bits of paper that fluttered in the wind.
Mesmerized by the burst of color, Miss Moon asks the elderly stranger, addressing him with the respectful and affectionate “grandfather,” where he is headed and what marvel he is carrying.
Returning Miss Moon’s affection, the old man addresses her as “little mouse” and explains that he is following the road to wherever it takes him, carrying a paper-flower tree. Ayer writes:
Miss moon smiled. She loved the tree. It was then she knew she had to have one.
“How pretty it is!” she said to the old man. “All those paper flowers twinkling in the sun. I wish I had a tree like that one.”
“One copper coin will buy you two flowers. If one of them has a seed,” the old man said, “who knows? Perhaps you can plant it — perhaps you can grow a tree for yourself.”
But Miss Moon’s heart sinks, for she has not a copper coin. The benevolent stranger meets her sadness with a smile and gives her a paper flower to keep — the smallest one on his tree, but adorned with a tiny black bead on a string — a seed.
He instructs her:
“Plant it — perhaps it will grow. I make no promises. Perhaps it will grow. Perhaps it will not.”
Miss Moon thanked the old man. “Thank you for my tree.”
“It’s not a tree yet; its only a flower, and a paper one at that,” he replied as he waved goodbye.
Much of what makes the story so wonderful is the magical realism of this deliberate interpolation between reality and make-belief — the characters themselves dip in and out of the river of consciousness on the shores of which they are co-creating the half-real, half-imagined miracle of the paper-flower tree, as if to assure us that splendor and delight are only ever the response of consciousness to the world and not a feature of the world itself, no less real, no less splendid or delightful, for being born out of the uncynical imaginations of kindred spirits.
When the old man continues on his open-ended journey, Miss Moon diligently plants the paper-flower seed, builds it a tiny roof to shield it from the unforgiving sun, then begins waiting and watching for it to sprout.
Days and weeks go by, seasons turn, the rice fields change color. Life in the village continues its usual cycle, until a whole year passes — with no paper-flower tree. The other villagers mock Miss Moon’s hopefulness. “You can’t possibly grow a tree from a bead,” they scoff. “You’re wasting your time,” they jeer — responses reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s thoughts on the failure of imagination at the heart of cynicism. But Miss Moon remains enchanted by the memory of the beautiful paper-flower tree and resolutely hopeful in her enchantment.
One day, a ramshackle truck rumbles down the road, tooting its horn and kicking up dust.
It rolled into the little village, and — rickety, rackety, crash bam — it came to a stop.
A strange little brown man, dressed in flashy, raggy tatters, hopped up like a bird to the top of the truck.
The odd fellow announces at the top of his lungs that his troupe of musicians and dancers will entertain the people of the village in exchange for a few silver coins.
But then Miss Moon spots amid the performers her old friend — the man with the paper-flower tree. She rushes over and asks “grandfather” if he remembers her. Of course he remembers the “little mouse.” When she laments the fate of her infertile seed, the old man’s face grows sad as he reminds her that he never promised it would grow:
I only said it might grow. Perhaps it won’t, and then again, perhaps it will.
As the spectacle of the circus unfolds into the warm night until the moon sets — drums and cymbals, dancers and clowns, flowing silks and tattered costumes — Miss Moon drifts off to sleep in her own bed and dreams of “bright-light colors and rice fields filled with paper-flower trees.”
When she rises with the sun, awakened by the smell of her mother’s cooking, she steps into the dawn to find aglow in the morning breeze a paper-flower tree.
Just then, she sees the rickety circus truck huffing and puffing away from the village. She runs after it, shouting excitedly at the old man that she finally got her paper-flower tree.
He smiled and waved as the old truck rumbled and roared away.
“Goodbye, little mouse!” he called.
When Miss Moon shows her treasured tree to the other villagers, they dismiss her enthusiasm with the same cynicism — it’s just the old man’s paper flowers on a stick, they say and hasten to remind her that it’s impossible to grow a tree from a bead. But Miss Moon’s radiant joy is undimmed by the cynics — their failure to see the tree as real is their own tragic limitation, and hers is a sovereign joy.
Complement The Paper-Flower Tree with other courageous and imaginative treasures from Enchanted Lion — Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish — then revisit Umbrella by Japanese illustrator Taro Yashima, a kindred-spirited gem from the same era serenading time, anticipation, and the art of waiting.
Illustrations and archival images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; book photographs by Maria Popova
Published August 30, 2017