In The Whispers, Nashville writer Greg Howard’s first middle-grade novel, no one wants to talk about Riley’s mama or her disappearance except Riley. When the frustrated boy decides to take the investigation into his own hands, his only hope for help lies with the Whispers, magical beings who live in the woods. The Whispers will grant seekers their heart’s desire—as long as they approve of the tribute the petitioner leaves.
While his mother’s disappearance is the worst of Riley’s troubles, it’s not the only one. His father, grappling with his own misery, seems hardly aware of his younger son. What little attention he can spare goes to Riley’s brother, Danny, who is handsome, popular, and self-confident—everything Riley isn’t. To make matters worse, Riley has suddenly started wetting his bed. His “condition,” as his grandmother calls it, upsets his father. “It’s like every time I do it,” Riley says, “I’m reminding him that Mama’s gone since I never did it before she disappeared.”
Riley is having a tough time at school, too. His nemesis, Gene Grimes (“the Voldemort of Buckingham Middle School”) teases him unmercifully for thinking his mother might still return, even four months after she vanished. Then there’s his “other condition”: Gene and “his posse of supercharged puberty mutants” have picked up on the fact that Riley isn’t interested in girls, but in boys.
To top it all off, Riley feels a crushing sense of guilt over his mother’s disappearance. He was the last one to see her, and while he can’t remember exactly what happened that day, the detective on her case isn’t interested in questioning anyone else. Could he somehow be a suspect? And could his mother have discovered Riley’s “other condition”? Was that why she left?
Riley isn’t totally alone. He has an elderly Rottweiler companion and a human best friend who is also something of an outcast. He has fond grandparents. And he has memories of his mother—their wordplay, her pet name for him (Button, since he’s “cute as a button”), and her stories.
The stories of the Whispers, especially, have stuck with Riley. These mysterious beings show themselves only as faint blue glows among the trees. They speak with “wispy voices” that are hard to understand. The Whispers live in the woods, according to his mother, and know “all the secrets of the universe.” Best of all, they can grant your heart’s desire. All they ask in return is a tribute: for small wishes, a jar of blackberry jam or other prized possessions; larger wishes might cost you your soul.
Riley’s heart’s desire is to know what happened to his mother and, of course, to have her come home. But is he willing to trade his very existence to have that wish come true?
Riley is a sweet and resilient character whose path to understanding is compelling. His struggles to understand and accept his own sexuality are not uncommon in young-adult fiction but are more rare in middle-grade novels (a notable exception is Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Nashville novelist Ashley Herring Blake, among a few others). His confusion and shame will resonate with readers coming to grips with who they are in any sense, not just in their sexual orientation, and Riley’s courage in facing his fears and remaining true to himself will surely encourage others to do the same.
Tracy Barrett is a writer who lives in Nashville. Her most recent book, Freefall Summer, was published in 2018 by Charlesbridge Teen.