The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski

Pamela Zagarenski is the recipient of two Caldecott  Honor silver medals. One for Sleep Like a Tiger, which was written by Mary Logue, and one for Red Sings from the Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman. The Whisper is her first major picture book as author and illustrator and it is every bit as superb as her layered, dream-like, magical illustrations.

The Whisper is a modern fairy tale of sorts. It begins with a nameless girl who notices "a mysterious book perched high up on a single shelf." Her teacher tells her that it is a magical book of stories, given as a gift by the teacher's grandmother, and asks if she would like to borrow it for the night. Of course she does! Filled with anticipation, the girl runs all the way home.

As she runs home, all the words fly out of the book. Fortunately, there is a helpful fox following behind her, capturing the letters in a net. She opens the book, dismayed by what she sees. By the time she reaches the last page, she could, "scarcely see, for her eyes were filled with tears. Where were the words? Where were the stories?" As the girl tries to make sense of her loss, a "knowing and wise" voice whispers to her, telling her that she can imagine the words and stories on her own. The voice tells her to, "start with a few simple words and imagine from there . . . There are never any rules, rights or wrongs in imagining - imagining just is."

The girl sat an looked at the pictures in the book, trying to imagine the words that could go with the pictures. She gives her story a title then begins the telling. Her process is part of the text of The Whisper, as is the story she tells. Zagarenski weaves recurring images throughout the story, from crowns, bees and foxes to rabbits, tea cups, stars, suns and moons. These iconic items that readers will recognize add to the richness of the story unfolding and allow readers to add in their own interpretations and story details.

The next day the girl rushes to school to return the magical book and tell her teacher what happened. As she makes her way to school, she meets a fox with a "curiously round package" for her. Telling her that he caught the words from her book in his net, he asks for her help with a small difficulty. The illustration shows the girl lifting the fox so that he can reach a luscious bunch of grapes, as in Aesop's Fable about the fox who, when he cannot reach the grapes, decides that they are undesirable. Like the fox in The Whisper, as opposed to the fox in the fable, rather than turning her back on the desired object - the magical book of stories that is now empty of stories - the girl makes her own happiness by listening to the whisper and creating her own stories. 

The Whisper is a circular story, filled with wonder and imagination and richly layered, sumptuous illustrations that tell a story all their own. The Whisper is a keeper of a book, one that young readers will carry into adulthood. 

Source: Review Copy


Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers AND Eoin Colfer Answers a Few Questions From My Students

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers is a big deal for a few reasons. First off, Imaginary Fred is the first picture book written by Colfer, author of the phenomenal eight volume series about the twelve-year-old millionaire, genius and criminal mastermind, Artemis Fowl. Colfer's newest, possibly more amazing series W.A.R.P. features a teenaged American FBI agent, Chevie Savano, sent to London to (unwittingly) guard a time travel device that is being used as part of a witness protection program. Back in 1898, a ruthless assasain-for-hire (and performing magician) and his young assistant Riley make a hit on the wrong man and find themselves traveling through time, for better, but mostly for worse. Oliver Jeffers is a bestselling illustrator and author (you can read my reviews of his books here) who brings a unique sensibility to his stories and a (now widely imitated) charmingly peculiar style to his illustrations. Finally, both Colfer and Jeffers are both Irish which, according to Colfer, means they share the same sense of humor. The story and illustrations in Imaginary Fred definitely exemplify the humor and quirk both are known for. And, in the end, Imaginary Fred is, above all else, winsome and sweet.

Imaginary Fred begins by letting readers know the precise conditions required for an imaginary friend to appear at the side of a lonely person. Once the lonely person finds a real friend, the imaginary friend begins to fade, eventually returning to the clouds. Fred is one of these imaginary friends, and a very accommodating one, who is waiting in the clouds for the right conditions. But, Fred is also pondering his existence and dreaming about a friend who liked "reading, music and drama like he did." Sam turns out to be just that friend but, as always, Sam finds a real friend - Sammi. 

Fred is acceptingly stoic about fading and returning to the clouds. Sam isn't. It turns out Sammi has an imaginary friend of her own, Frieda. The name and word play makes for lovely symmetry and connection between the friends. The quartet pursues all of the interests they shared as duos, from the study of mime, the making of Japanese masks, the practice of their classical instruments and inquiries into the workings of the toilet. Over time, Fred and Frieda, who prefer graphic novels to classical music, find themselves heading off to do their own thing more frequently, leaving Sam and Sammi a contented duo. Interestingly, Fred and Frieda, now imaginary friends to each other, become quite famous in the imaginary community. They are studied by imaginary scientists and an imaginary statue of the two is erected in the clouds above their imaginary house. The statue, "should have disappeared every time a gust of wind came along. But it never did."

I had the opportunity to send a few questions to Eoin Colfer (see below) and decided to let my students do my work for me. I read Imaginary Fred over and over, to all grades, having the students present questions to ask Colfer afterwards. As I read Imaginary Fred again and again, I began to appreciate subtleties in the story. One student, a first grader, suggested that Jeffers could have used more colors in the book, which  is primarily line drawings with Fred and Frieda appearing in blue and yellow, solidified by dots - or color halftone, which is how photos are printed in newspapers. This got me thinking. How DO you illustrate an imaginary friend? Especially one who fades away? Jeffers's solution seems perfect and especially matched to his illustration style. My favorite illustration is when Sam and Fred are seen reading together. Sam is reading Artemis Fowl and Fred is reading Lost and Found.


Grade 1

Dylan - Do grown-ups have imaginary friends?
I think most grown ups have forgotten how to magic up imaginary friends. It’s sad really that we can’t have someone special around whenever we need them.

Mateo - Do you like the pictures that Oliver Jeffers drew?
I love Oliver’s art and not just in this book, in all his wonderful books.

Marianna - Do imaginary friends take showers?
Some do and some are a little stinky. It depends on the habits of their real friend.

Xitlalic - How do you draw something no one else can see?
Oliver used a special dot technique to show which character was the imaginary friend.

Juan - Do you like your book?
I love it. Of all the thirty something books I have done this is one of my absolute favourites.

Natalie - Did your imaginary friend go back into the sky?
He did but I am one of the lucky adults who gets a visit from time to time.

Josaiah - Do you have glasses?
I do wear glasses for reading and working on the computer.

Evelyn - How did you come up with the idea (for IMAGINARY FRED)?
I never forgot having an imaginary friend myself and always thought that one day I would put him in a book.

Grade 4

Mr. Blanchard (4th grade teacher) - What do you tell someone who says you are being weird if you have an imaginary friend?
You respond that having an imaginary friend is a sign of a powerful brain not weirdness. And anyway I am weird and I love being weird. Who wants to be normal if there even is any such thing?

Oscar - What would you do if you didn’t write books?
If I didn’t write books I would still be a 6th grade teacher.

Victor - Does somebody help you come up with your ideas?
Sometimes I work with partners. Oliver had a lot of ideas for this book.

Alyssa - Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid and did it ever fade?
I had a friend called Huck but he let me go to high school on my own.

Alanna - What did your imaginary friend do when you were at school?
My imaginary friend slept when I was in school because he had to stay awake at night guarding my bedroom.