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The Whisper

whisperAlice famously wondered, “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” In The Whisper, Pamela Zagarenski asks readers to consider the use of a picture book without words. Having been lent a “magical book of stories” by her teacher for the night, the unnamed protagonist eagerly scampers home with it — only to lose all the book’s words on the way. At first disappointed to find a book with only pictures, the little girl is encouraged by the mysterious, titular whisper to “imagine the words … imagine the story.”

The particular double-page spread in which the letters are lost will tantalize preliterate children and energize young readers. The swarm of letters that flies free from the book’s pages (caught by a passing fox with a butterfly net) contains words, many of them the ingredients for a great story: wonder, fable, secret, and more. They also introduce the book’s recurring images, among them honeybees, a crown, and a fox. This use of intra-iconic text prefigures the child’s imaginative journey later on; beneath the cloud of letters, the page is relatively simple, a powerful contrast to the later, image-rich wordless pages the girl interprets.

Zagarenski consciously uses framing to help readers understand the book. The events that take place in the little girl’s world — the frame story, if you will — are presented on full-bleed pages, while the storybook she reads is presented with white margins surrounding it, as if it were an open book sitting over another, larger open book. Objects within the storybook pages frequently break this frame, as does the drift of honeybees that appears on nearly every page throughout and forms one of the visual leitmotifs, a powerful indicator of the permeability of the wall between the real world and the imagined one. The honeybees are also a potent symbol of transformation: just as they convert nectar to honey, the girl’s imagination converts raw pictures to stories.

As the child begins to imagine, the illustration accompanying her first effort is relatively simple. I say “relative” because Zagarenski’s style almost can’t help being ornate. But this spread features a muted palette, and the figures in it — a couple of bears, a few humans, some houses and trees — are arranged around a mostly blank space in the bottom center, perhaps where the block of text would be had the letters not flown off. As the pages turn and the girl’s imaginative facility improves, the palette deepens and gains in saturation, and the compositions become more crowded.

The girl’s changing position relative to the storybook images will beguile young readers. Like the print that conveys the narratives she concocts, she sits in the bottom margin of the pages of the book readers are holding, focusing intently on her borrowed book while readers see what she sees. Her postures are perfectly childlike: sitting cross-legged, lying flat on her tummy, turned over on her back. Eventually the storybook world and her world merge as she dreams, the frame disappearing and the page a riot of overlapping images from the previous pages.

Readers will go to town finding the recurring images, delighting as the crown initially fixed to the front cover of the book finds its way into the storybook illustrations and then onto the girl’s head, crowning her queen of imagination. The tableaux that inspire the girl to spin her own stories are sumptuous and surreal, presenting any number of possible stories. Readers can elect to finish the stories the protagonist starts or make their own up whole-cloth: that whispered invitation enters readers’ own imaginations with the same ease that the honeybees fly between the girl’s world and the storybook world.

I do have one concern and one question, however. As the girl peruses the wordless pages, the right-hand edges of the storybook frame are ragged, while the left-hand edges are relatively smooth. At first I thought that was brilliant: that raggedness of the right-hand edge indicates the wear and tear of little fingers, eager to turn the page and see what’s next — but while that might work as picture-book semiotic code, it’s a failure to literally mimic the physicality of a real book, as what’s ragged on the right-hand edge should be ragged on the left-hand edge after the page turn. And it is not.

My question concerns the explicit reference to Aesop at the end, when the fox gives the words back to the girl and in return asks for a boost so she can reach a couple of bunches of grapes. Since the book is explicitly an encouragement to readers to let their imaginations go and create their own stories, what does pinning the end of The Whisper to a specific story do to that encouragement? Even though the fox takes the opportunity to rewrite the fable on the rear endpapers, I’m still not sure how I feel about going from the wide-open world of stories to a very specific reference. I’m interested to hear what others think about this!

Taken as a whole, the book is testament to the interaction of illustration, printed text, and readers, its design cunningly layering experiences in an almost infinite regression that begins (or ends, I suppose) inside the heads of readers. Wow.


About Vicky Smith

Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor for Kirkus Reviews.



  1. I love this book. I love the illustration style, the repeating motifs, the section in the middle with the story prompts. So many parts of this book to me are distinguished and different from the other books this year. I actually loved the fact that at the end of the story it shows a the story from Aesop re-imagined. The Whisper says in the book “Remember beginnings, middles and ends of stories can always be changed and imagined differently. There are never any rules, rights, or wrongs in imagining–imagining just is.” Ending with a specific story with an ending rewritten by the fox to be what he wants lets the child have permission of sorts to imagine a different ending to the stories we already know. I actually thought it was a great way to end the story.

  2. Vicky Smith says:

    Thanks for this, Cherylynn. I appreciate your vigorous endorsement of Zagarenski’s choice. It helps me feel easier about the use of a specific story–and since I *love* the fox’s ending, that makes me happy. And how fabulous that the fox is a vixen? Not admissible in a Caldecott discussion, perhaps, but cool nonetheless.

  3. I also love this book. I was visually blown away with the letters creatively escaping into the foxes butterfly net. As a reader, I found myself imaging many more scenes, and at the end, the text, giving the fox freedom to imagine his own scenes, in which the children will certainly help him with their unending suggestions, is a lovely way to ‘let the imaginations soar, whether it be in a fox, a child, or an adult. I think this book deserves more praise! Honors! Medals!!

  4. I, too, really enjoyed the illustrations in this one, but the premise of the whisper was weird to me. I didn’t get it and didn’t think the story measured up to the illustrations.

  5. Vicky Smith says:

    Sorry for coming back to this so late, Charity. I I hear you, but I think, if we go back to Cherylynn’s defense of the Aesop story, the “whisper” makes sense. If we posit that the fox is the whisperer (and that’s the implication I draw from the scene in the fourth spread after the title page, in which the fox looks in the window at the girl trying to read the now-wordless book), then there’s a framing story outside the framing story. The whole imaginative adventure could be construed as an elaborate scheme by the fox to rewrite “The Fox and the Grapes”–“don’t be disappointed….stories can always be changed and imagined differently.” The layers of meta-story are dizzying.

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