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

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