Humming Whispers Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Teacher
Angela Johnson won the Coretta Scott King Award for her first novel for young adults, Toning the Sweep. She continues to distinguish herself as a unique voice in the field with Humming Whispers. This new book focuses on schizophrenia and its effect on family and friends. Like Toning the Sweep, Johnson's latest is a tribute to strength in the face of hardship; to love and friendship and the support of family; and to women who make the best of what they have. Humming Whispers garnered starred reviews from the critics and was praised as luminous, riveting, ambitions, and original. Johnson's short novel features her hallmarks of short chapters and terse prose. Neither should signal simplicity. Her stream of consciousness writing demands a thoughtful reader. Humming Whispers cries out to be discussed with a friend or in a literature discussion group.
Humming Whispers is fourteen-year-old Sophy's story about her older sister's schizophrenia. It's about her sister hearing the voices. It's about her sister's disappearances and her subsequent hospital stays. Mostly, the book is about giving love; taking responsibility; confronting fear; and never giving up hope. As Sophy watches her sister go in and out of bouts with her illness, she worries about her own sanity. But Sophy's words reveal her essentially pragmatic and optimistic spirit: "Aunt Shirley says the sun shines on, though, and it just is. We get up expecting it to shine brighter some days than others. We never get up expecting it not to be there. Aunt Shirley's way of saying, 'Live with it.' And we do."
Mental illness is devastating, especially when it seizes a fourteen-year-old, just beginning her life. Sophy, the narrator of Humming Whispers, knows firsthand. Since the day her sister disappeared, following the whispers no one else could hear, Sophy's life has not been tranquil. Her mom and dad, now just a dim memory, were killed in an automobile accident when she was a toddler. The only life, and family, she remembers are Aunt Shirley, her sister Nicole, and their apartment in Cleveland. Now that she is fourteen years old, Sophy fears that the whispers, which descended upon Nicole at fourteen, have invaded her own mind also. Johnson provides us with a first-person glimpse into the fears that can overwhelm the world of an adolescent. Fear paralyzes Sophy, so that her dancing, her friendships, and her studies disappear into the black hole that comes with the whispers. Fear is a vivid reality for this teen who is torn by fear for her own sanity and love for her sister. "…I know I shouldn't be afraid for someone who can sing in elevators and speak three languages. I'm trying every day. I'm trying not to be afraid. That's all I have to remember. That's what I have to hold on to."
Humming Whispers offers supporting characters that are finely drawn to spotlight the manic dualism that often comes with tragedy. Miss Onyx, a Holocaust survivor, provides dreams and tea when the world overwhelms Sophy. Nicole's prince charming, Reuben, recognizes his powerlessness in the face of her disease but steadfastly returns to support each of the women in a special way. Independent, yet interdependent, the characters dance a dance of fear and sorrow, music, laughter, and happiness. In the end, love and hope allay Sophy's fears as the sisters clasp hands in loving support and whirl silently in the midst of a raging storm.
Thinking About the Book
- Before Sophy and Nicole came to live with Aunt Shirley, she kept a diary, started painting, and protected baby seals from slaughter. All that stopped when she became the girls' mother and started work making tofu. Is Aunt Shirley a heroine or a tragic figure?
- What did Nicole mean when she said to her sister, "But learn to get yourself out of locked castles."?
- Why do you think Angela Johnson put Miss Onyx in this novel?
- Discuss the things that make Sophy think she, too, might be schizophrenic.
- Sophy carries a heavy burden as she tries to look after Nicole and still go to school and practice her dancing. Do you feel sympathetic toward Nicole and her illness and/or angry with her for what she has done to her sister?
- One of Angela Johnson's themes in her books for young adults concerns the importance of family and friends in the lives of her main characters. Can you give examples of that theme in Humming Whispers?
- In discussing the importance of dancing, Miss Onyx tells Sophy: "That is why it is so important to use your gift. The more you use it, the more you will find yourself." What did Miss Onyx mean?
- At the end of Humming Whispers, are you optimistic about Sophy's future? How about Nicole's?
- Why is Humming Whispers a good title for this book? If you could choose another title, what would it be? Design the new book cover that would go with your new title.
- Angela Johnson develops the characters in Humming Whispers by giving the reader many little snapshots throughout the novel that come together to form a total portrait of each character by the book's end. Using pictures cut out of magazines and newspapers, create a collage that depicts Sophy, Nicole, Miss Onyx, Aunt Shirley, or Reuben.
- In trying to understand Nicole and her illness, Sophy picks up several pamphlets and looks up the word schizophrenia in the dictionary. Research the topic of schizophrenia. Do Nicole's actions and moods resemble what you discovered in your research?
- To fulfill a class requirement in composition class, Sophy writes a fifty-word description of the state of the world as she sees it. If Nicole could use only fifty words, how would she describe the state of the world?
- Form two teams to debate this statement: By the end of Humming Whispers, both Nicole and her little sister, Sophy, are schizophrenic.
- Read Angela Johnson's award-winning young adult novel Toning the Sweep. What similarities do you find in Toning the Sweep and Humming Whispers? Which book do you like better? Why?
An Interview with Angela Johnson
Richard F. Abrahamson & Linda M. Pavonetti:
What inspired you to write Humming Whispers?
Angela Johnson: A couple of things inspired Humming Whispers. First, I became fascinated with schizophrenia and its effects on the young. The disease is so very tragic because it usually strikes young adults in their late teens or early twenties. The idea that there is so much promise ahead that is dashed by the disease is extremely frightening. As I began to write the book, many people came to me with their personal stories about loved ones with the disease, and, as I listened to their stories, my own grew.
The second part of my inspiration was the city of Cleveland. I love the city and it diversity. I needed my character to prowl the streets of a very interesting city.
RFA & LMP: What is one thing you hope teenage readers will take away with them to think about after reading Humming Whispers?
AJ: Fear is a very palpable thing. Sometimes it almost takes form right in front of you. The one thing I do want teenagers to get from Humming Whispers is that to talk out your fears with others is one very good way to deal with them.
RFA & LMP: What role do you think Miss Onyx plays in your novel?
AJ: Miss Onyx is the survivor. She has seen such horrific tragedy that her place in the book is to stand in front of Sophy to let her know that you can go on. You can have art and music and happiness if you want it; but you must fight for it.
RFA & LMP: By the end of Humming Whispers, are you optimistic about Sophy's future? What about Nikki's?
AJ: I am very optimistic about Sophy's future. Many people don't get that in the ending. I feel Sophy's coming to terms with her sister's illness is ridding her of the fears that, in the end, would have destroyed her. I carry that same optimism about Nicole, too. She will go on living — ill - but living her life as best she can with the hand that was dealt her.
RFA & LMP: Aunt Shirley was just a young girl when her brother and sister-in-law died. Do you see her as a tragic character or a heroine?
AJ: I most certainly see Aunt Shirley as a heroine. She did not have to raise these children. Parenthood is a very heroic undertaking. She raised the kids and dealt with all the problems that came with her decision without losing herself completely.
RFA & LMP: What is one question you'd like to ask teen readers after they have finished reading Humming Whispers?
AJ: How would you deal with a very real fear of becoming mentally ill?
RFA & LMP: In your novel, Miss Onyx talks about the importance of nurturing the talents each of us is given. She says to Sophy, "That is why it is so important to use your gift. The more you use it, the more you will find yourself." Your talent is writing. How has it helped you to find yourself?
AJ: I find that writing helps me work through many problems that seem overwhelming to me. I am able to work out my feelings on paper and see where my insight takes me. Because I have put my feelings down on paper since I was very young, I feel that part of me would be lost without writing. It would be like trying to sing without a voice.