I remember last year around the time Love by Matt de la Pena had been released and I was struck by a few of the scenes in the story and one in particular of a child sitting under a piano with evidence of domestic dispute surrounding him. I remember reading an article that addressed the importance of not all books for children being these wonderful happy perfect examples of life. That kids need to see tough things because for some this is sadly the only time they might see their own experience in books and that from that we can learn and we can perhaps ask for help. As I read The Whispers by Greg Howard these thoughts came back to me. This is a book that deals with so much, it isn’t always happy but without a doubt, I know that having this book in my classroom, that talking about it with my students I will have a student that connects to even just a part of the tragic and yet hopeful story of Riley.
I don’t tend to dedicate blog posts to single stories but there is so much in this one that I just feel I need to get my thoughts on the “page”. To begin this story has a lot in it. The main character that is dealing with being bullied for being “funny”, the grief of a missing loved one, family dysfunction, ageing family members and pets, friendships, crushes and all sorts of typical teenage issues.
Riley has two conditions. One he was discovering before his mom disappeared and a second he developed after. The second condition is that Riley wets the bed nightly since his mom disappeared, he is ashamed of this and feels ashamed and judged by his father. To make matters worse Riley blames his first condition on why his mother is no longer there. We discover early in the story that Riley is likely gay (I don’t recall it ever using the word though), he has no interest in girls but has a crush on a neighbour boy who also serves as his protector at times. The other kids at school have always made fun of him and to make matters worse he blames his mom leaving on her finding out about his “condition”. He feels his brother and father hate him because he has placed this blame on himself. He is a religious boy and throughout the story even recalls praying to not have this condition. He feels his father hates him and he has heard members of the community say that it would have “killed” his mother to find out that her son was “funny”.
Focusing on just this sense of isolation that Riley expresses in the story, the need to hide his condition the shame of it, the blame he places on himself, the feelings he has that his family doesn’t love him, wouldn’t be sad to see him leave, pushes him to the forest to explore an old legend of The Whispers, magical creatures that he believes will help him find his mother again.
I don’t want to spoil the story because it is full of twists and turns but I do hope that people will read it, that they will put it in their classrooms and that they will not be afraid to share it with students because the messages in the story, the themes it discusses are not always nice, but they are real. These are struggles kids very well might see themselves in and if The Whispers does anything it tells us a story of a boy who has suffered loss, has suffered bullying and suffers guilt for past actions but still holds on to hope.
Disclaimer: I don’t want to spoil the story but the ending is really nice so don’t give up on it during the sad parts 🙂