‘The Whisper,’ by Pamela Zagarenski
By Pamela Zagarenski, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99, ages 4-8
Children abhor a vacuum. Pockets need to be filled with acorns and rocks, paper bags with ingenious assortments of objects; contents of cups must reach the tippity-top. What happens, then, when a child is faced with a book emptied of words? The little girl who stars in “The Whisper” knows what to do: She fills it up with stories of her own.
The book within this book — with a crown and stars in gold and red on its regal cover — catches the eye of the curious little girl, who loves stories. She spies it high on her teacher’s shelf: “‘That is a magical book of stories,’” says the teacher. “‘It was a gift from my grandmother when I was just about your age. I have an idea. Would you like to borrow it for the night?’”
The teacher doesn’t need to ask twice. On the edge of the next page readers can see just a streak of the girl, scarf flying, dashing home with the book under her arm. In her haste, though, the girl doesn’t notice when the words from the book break free and float up into the sky behind her, forming a jagged cloud. A word search reveals “key,” “wise,” “cloak,” “boats,” “clever,” among many others; a fox, trailing the girl, catches the words in a net, but cut loose from their order the stories they tell have been lost.
Once she reaches home the girl discovers that the book has no words and she despairs. Soon, though, she can’t help but be intrigued by the pictures that remain in the book. And soon she begins to make up her own stories: “BLUE BEAR’S VISIT”: “Blue Bear arrived on the first day of spring. He promised . . .” ; and “THE SECRET”: “Mr. Ox, you must please promise not to tell anyone, but we need your help. Last week . . .” Sentences trail off, more writing prompts than stories, either frustrating or intriguing readers. But the fabulously layered paintings by two-time Caldecott honor winner Zagarenski are so beautifully constructed and lavishly painted — swirling patterns and honeycombs in the background, winsome creatures in the fore — that readers can’t help but fall for this book.
The first time I read this book out loud, I was ordered to stop reading the words and just describe the paintings. The second time through, the book’s magic took hold; I waited and my own little girl told her own stories to me.