The Open Book: The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski
THERE WAS ONCE A LITTLE GIRL WHO LOVED STORIES.
SHE LOVED HOW THE WORDS AND PICTURES TOOK HER TO NEW AND SECRET PLACES
THAT EXISTED IN A WORLD ALL HER OWN.
The girl is intrigued with a book on a high shelf at school.
"IT IS A MAGICAL BOOK OF STORIES," REPLIED HER TEACHER.
"WOULD YOU LIKE TO BORROW IT FOR THE NIGHT?"
The girl dashes toward home with the book under her arm, oblivious to the fact that the words from the book are floating behind her. Unbeknownst to her, a red fox follows, capturing the intriguing words--"once upon a time, wizard, honey, whale, secret"--in a tall butterfly net. Of course, when after supper dishes are done the girl steals away to her room to open the book, she finds lavish pictures, but no words. There's no story without words, she thinks, dejected.
But then there comes a little whisper, perhaps from the fox peering through the window.
YOU CAN IMAGINE THE WORDS, IMAGINE THE STORIES.
THERE ARE NEVER ANY RIGHTS OR WRONGS IN IMAGINING.
IMAGINING JUST IS.
On the page are two bears, a blue bear, wearing a crown, and a honey bear, with a crown floating over his head, and the girl begins to tell the story of the first day of spring and a promise of a gift of honey....
Pamela Zagarenski's The Whisper (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) is actually many stories within a story inside a story, a layered book of lavish, opulent, splendid story-starting illustrations, with cities of tall, narrow houses climbing up hillsides and large, fanciful animals--tigers, bears, an ox and an owl, and the ever present fox and rabbit--each providing a wild premise for each page's adventures as the girl, seated at the edge of the frame with the open book before her, spins out the opening phrases of her story from her imagination. Pale, pastel illustrations, gauzy and glorious, suggest many scenarios, as the pages proceed, left to right. And the girl spins out the opening words for a tale for each. ...That very morning Owl told us he would pick us up at midnight and to be prepared for anything. He held a golden key tightly in his beak as we flew into the indigo night....
The girl's imaginings blend into dreams, and when she wakes, dazed and dreamy, she hurriedly dresses and dashes to school, prepared to confess that the book is returned incomplete. But along the way through the woods she meets the fox, clutching a round, golden bag.
"EXCUSE ME, LITTLE GIRL.
I BELIEVE I HAVE THE WORDS TO YOUR BOOK.
NOW, PLEASE, BEFORE YOU LEAVE,
COULD I BOTHER YOU
FOR A SMALL FAVOR?" ASKED THE FOX.
The book is returned to the teacher, and the girl's hurried explanation ends with a rush.
THANK YOU! I HAVE SO MANY STORIES TO TELL.
The two-time Caldcott Honor-winning Zagarenski's story prompts are deliciously illustrated in surreal, expressionistic art, rife with symbols and her own signature images, segmented circles, sun and moon, animals, some of which are fantasy versions of the girl's own toys, teapots and cups, bees and honeycombs, all a feast for the eyes and an intriguing puzzle. The crown on the cover of the book reappears as a symbol of imagination over the heads of the animals, the girl, and ultimately the fox herself.
But that's not all. Inside the imagined stories nested inside the story of the wordless book, there is the real story of a clever fox, with a re-imagined version of her own famous fable:
A Famished Fox saw some clusters of ripe grapes hanging from a vine. She resorted to all her tricks to get them, but wearied herself in vain,
for she could not reach them. At last, she turned away, saying "The Grapes are sour and not as ripe as I thought."
... BUT THIS FOX IS OF THE VERY CLEVER KIND,
SO SHE IMAGINED HER STORY DIFFERENTLY
AND THE GRAPES TASTED EVER SO SWEET.
A clever picture book author-illustrator never wastes a good pair of endpapers, and Zagarenski's provide the essential and humorous frame story for this book. The opening endpaper shows the hungry red fox wistfully eyeing the too-high grapes, but as the author reveals, within the story the fox manages to earn "one small favor," a boost from the grateful girl up to the fruit beyond her reach, and the closing endpaper shows her, full of grapes, snoozing under the arbor, with the crown clearly hers.
Depending upon the age and knowledge of the child experiencing this story, some adult guidance may be needed to unpack what is going on in this story within a story within a story, a wryly witty way to drive home the premise of the power of the imagination. A reading of the original Aesop's fable of the Fox and the Grapes would be a good opener.
Watch for this one at award time. Zagarenski's award-winning illustrations may be seen in Joyce Sidman's What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms, and Blessings and Mary Logue's Sleep Like a Tiger. (Caldecott Medal - Honors Winning Title(s))