by Sam Juliano
One would be hard pressed, stroke for stroke, image for image, idea for idea to find a more imaginative or phantasmagorical picture book in 2015 than Pamela Zagarenski’s surrealist The Whisper, the first book this celebrated two-time Caldecott Honor winning artist has also written herself. The Whisper, which made me think of Lewis Carroll is a book within a book, and an indescribably beautiful visualization of a time-worn creative writing assignment, where students are asked to write a story based on a series of pictures. But alas no students have yet been given the kind of ravishing art Zagarenski has been known for throughout her career, nor perhaps have been temped with such imaginative provocations, nor with such challenging, intricate tapestries. Zagarenski’s sensibilities are Felliniesque though her mixed media application, elaborate design and kaleidoscopic imagery. The Whisper is about the power of storytelling and the limitless imagination, but it is also a fever dream, with connecting images, designs and colors, that carries over the artist’s previous preoccupation with crowns, teacups wheels, tigers and the heavens. There is wonder, enchantment, and magic in a story where the words fly out of the book while the girl carries it home from school, but a fox catches them with a net in the central conceit. This is the Seven Voyages of Sinbad meets Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, though Zagarenski’s dreamy ideas are far more benign if suggestive.
The story is set in motion when a girl inquires about a book featuring a cover with a golden crown sitting on a high shelf in a classroom. The teacher tells her it is a magic book of stories, that was gifted to her from her grandmother when she was about the same age as the girl. The girl brings the book home -minus the words as per my previously related plot point-and begins to turn the pages. She hears the wind and a small whisper that tells her not to be disappointed, and that the book is intended for the reader to imagine the words and stories. The whisper advises further:
Start with a few simple words and imagine from there. 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.
The first spread pictures a small town and two bears, one brown and one blue. The girl thinks that the blue one may be bringing honey as a gift to the other, reasoning that bears love honey. She gives the story a title, “Blue Bear’s Visit” and begins to tell herself the connected story – Blue Bear arrived on the first day of spring. He promised….
Zagarenski’s impressionistic mixed media application for the prospective meeting of the two bears is comparatively sedate with muted textures, the ever present fox and rabbit, stone buildings that suggest a working class town and the seemingly transformative power of bees. In the second picture the art is deepened as the town is amplified. A giant ox lies in a field, where someone whispers a secret in his ear (indeed the girl names this story aptly enough “The Secret”) and trademark Zagarenski colors (red, her favorite, typically dominant) are dreamily drenched over objects and backgrounds in impressionist ardor. Fox and rabbit are there again, and the bees are again major players. As is the case with a few rounds of experience the girl finds the assignment getting easier. The architecture in the next tapestry appears Eastern European and strikingly bleeds through the white elephant that is being barged down the river. The fox, rabbit and a lion are also aboard in this story named “The Quest”, also the title of the second part of Aaron Becker’s own fantastical journeys. It should be mentioned that the girl is shown on the bottom of each spread actively engaging in each new visualization.
“Tiger’s Prayer” brings some of the same cast of character back in a carnival show of a tapestry, with a tiger and the lion, in preparation for a tea party among many of the animals that fondly recalls May I Bring a Friend?, the 1965 Caldecott Medal winner by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, that was illustrated by opera designer and film director Beni Montresor, who’d be well within his element with Zagarenski’s richly sublime and intricate design. The lovely “A Birthday Party” canvas recalls the artist’s previous “Red: Sings from Treetops” which illustrated for the poet Joyce Sidman. It is remarkably detailed with usual suspects on hand, and the celebratory lanterns and streamers, and again those incessant bees, in this book instruments of magic. The cake with candles and its red cloaked carrier is an arresting addition. In the upper left a man fishes on a lake, two owls are perched in the two trees at the outer boundaries each way. The girl relates:
An owl perched in a tree to our left asked, “HOO WHO?” and we promptly answered with the secret password.
“The Magical Cloak” depicts a mysterious man in an elaborate cloak who sailed into the harbor. Soon enough he was seen to be a wizard, possessing the ability to blow big bubbles in the shape of things. Once the bubbles are blown up they become real. White whales suddenly were formed. “The Golden Key”involved an owl promising to pick they up at midnight:
Word by word, hour after hour, the little girl imagined an entire story for each page. And when the moon was full and bright, she grew sleep and drifted off into a dream world woven out of the threads of the pictures and the stories she had imagined.
All her new friends converge in the same place in a sphere of breathtaking magnificence, what one might see after entering the gates of heaven. After the girl wakes up an heads back to school she runs in the fox is the subject of a second story that actually began on the opening end papers and continues through to the closing papers, complete with a re-imagining and golden crown.
The Whisper is the rare picture book that offers up a new experience every time you re-visit. A real artistic triumph it should easily have the Caldecott committee paying their own toll of return engagements.
Note: This is the thirty-sixth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.