Before I jump from one fantasy to another, I thought I’d read a book I’ve had for ages. Song for a Whale, a middle grade book by Lynne Kelly, has actually been published since February, so here is my belated review of its ARC. (Since it’s an ARC, I won’t quote or anything, just comment generally.)
Iris, a Deaf girl, struggles to make friends at her mostly hearing school. Then, in science class, she learns of Blue 55, a whale who cannot sing at the same frequency as others. Iris is intrigued, and using her skills at repairing and building radios, tries to create a way to communicate with the lonely animal through sounds he recognizes. However, the next obstacle she faces is how to get the song to Blue 55 when he is halfway around the world.
I feel like this was a book written specifically for my younger self—sign language, marine biology, a clever protagonist. I’ve known some sign language since I was a kid, and for years was fascinated by marine mammals (but then, who wasn’t?). So I was predisposed to enjoy this book.
Iris is an excellent lead. She is not only sweet, intelligent, and brave, she also serves as an example of a couple underrepresented demographics: Deaf children and girls in STEM (though the latter is becoming more common). This novel focuses a lot on how Iris’ Deafness affects her everyday life, as well as how it contributes to the connection she feels with Blue 55. Kelly does an excellent job explaining struggles Iris faces, revealing the beauty and versatility of American Sign Language, and portraying the complex relations in mixed hearing-deaf families. I think people who don’t know much about Deaf culture, as well as those who do, will enjoy these aspects of the book.
As far as I can tell, the marine biology is accurate. Blue 55 is based on a real whale, but Kelly makes a masterful decision to make him a true character as well, with a few chapters featuring his point of view. This connects us to him emotionally, and so his journey is as important to us as it is to Iris.
I liked most of the other characters, though some are rather one-note. I think if they were more fleshed out, I’d have liked them more. Furthermore, the pacing of this novel seems rushed on occasion; I wanted things to slow down to explore the relationships between characters a bit more. I know this is a middle grade novel, but I was left somewhat wanting on the character front (other than Iris, Blue 55, and a few others). However, the main plot is one I was invested in, and I was glad to see Iris take initiative to achieve something she believes in.
In the end, Song for a Whale is a great book. Iris is a star, with heart and passion and smarts, and those who help her along the way are also wonderful. Deaf culture is portrayed with accuracy and respect, never exaggerated or pitied. And Iris’ journey is moving—she is just a girl seeking connections, and trying to help a creature she relates to find the same. This would be an excellent book for a kids’ book club.
Overall rating: 8/10