Watching a panel on portraying deaf and hard of hearing characters in middle grade novels made me realize I had not yet posted my review of panelist Lynne Kelly’s book, “Song for a Whale,” which I had reviewed in March, 2020, for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. So! Here it is!!
Singing His Own Song
I am not a teacher. But I can imagine that seeing a student become impassioned by something you introduced them to must be magical and gratifying. That is what happens to science teacher Sofia Alamilla in the middle-grade novel “Song for a Whale,” by Lynne Kelly.
The main character, Iris, sees a video in Alamilla’s class about a whale named Blue 55. This whale has a song that is of such a different frequency that no other whale in the world can communicate with it. I imagine it might be like speaking Russian versus English. It is not that the whales can’t hear each other, it is more that they cannot understand one another; they have no shared language.
Iris becomes obsessed with showing Blue 55 that his song is being heard and he is not alone.
Her efforts include reaching out to scientists in an Alaskan sanctuary who are trying to put a tracker on Blue 55, enlisting band students to record sounds at the same frequency as Blue 55’s songs, and suggesting that the scientists play her recording (of band music plus other sounds) to try to attract Blue 55 so they can tag him. Before she was introduced to Blue 55, Iris liked to repair old radios in her spare time, so her experience with electronics comes in handy.
Iris identifies intensely with this whale, swimming all alone in the deep, wide ocean with no one to communicate with. It is understandable when the reader learns that Iris is Deaf. She lives with her parents and her brother Tristan. Iris’s maternal grandparents are both Deaf, so Iris’s mother signs well, as does Tristan. But Iris’s dad is weak at signing and doesn’t try very hard, which makes Iris feel frustrated and unloved. In addition, Iris goes to a school where she is the only Deaf student, which also makes her feel isolated and misunderstood.
Once she becomes fixated on Blue 55, Iris dreams of being at the sanctuary when the whale hears her recording. This dream leads her on some wild adventures that enable her to make a new friend, reconnect with her Deaf grandmother and help guide her through her grief (her husband recently died), and get in exceedingly big trouble with her parents.
I especially enjoyed this story for the windows it gave me into American Sign Language, the study of whale songs, and the ins and outs of radio repair.
Author Kelly is clearly fluent in American Sign Language and the descriptions she gives of the nuances of that language are something I’ve never read about before. For example, there are two different signs for the word “miss,” one which indicates missing a bus, and a different sign that indicates missing a loved one.
On top of that, Kelly has her main character repair radios as a hobby; a surprising interest, given that she is Deaf. But just as Kelly helps readers understand ASL’s nuances, she also does a great job conveying how Iris can sense sound by feeling the vibrations of the sound waves. Iris is a natural born tinkerer and she brings her radio-repair skills to bear on her Blue 55 project as well. It’s especially intriguing to me that this novel, so much of which is about sound, whether radios or whales, has at its heart a young girl who cannot hear.
I will note that, while Blue 55 does not exist, it is loosely based on a real whale, 52 Blue, whose song is at a frequency of 52 hertz, rather than 55. The author has a good note at the back explaining where she took liberties and what is based on research. This story has some good STEAM themes, including the basic physics of sound and the study of whales, not to mention showing how much trial and error is involved in both of these undertakings.
Young readers will enjoy seeing Iris follow her passion with great intensity and cheer when her grandmother steps up to help her. I imagine Iris will always look back on this chapter of her life as a time when she felt most alive. And her teacher (if this were not fiction!) should take pride in helping make it happen.