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Song for A Whale, Lynne Kelly

I’ll start by saying this: I didn’t know when I started reading this book that I would spend an inordinate amount of time feeling incredibly anxious over the emotional wellbeing of a single whale, and yet there I was. There were even one or two people who got panicky texts from me about how I wasn’t going to be ok until I knew if the whale was ok. Sorry again about that. You know who you are. 

What’s the Book?

Song for A Whale is the charming, yet emotional story of a young, deaf girl, a lonely whale, and the unlikely bond she forms with it. Our hero, Iris, is still grieving the loss of her also deaf grandfather when she learns about a whale in science class whose call is just different enough that he’s unable to communicate with any other whales. Iris becomes obsessed with finding a way to let the whale know it’s not alone in the world and her quest to reach him sets her off on a quest she couldn’t have imagined. 

The reader watches Iris try to create a song the whale can communicate with using her vast knowledge of frequency and sound through her work repairing radios. Her family weaves in and out of the story with a wide variety of understanding from her Dad, who has never taken the time to actually learn how to sign, to her grandmother, who is also deaf and used to be a source of comfort for Iris before her grandfather’s passing. In time, Iris is impossibly entangled in her desire to not only make sure the whale doesn’t feel alone but herself as well. 

Why It’s A Top Ten

When I picked up this book, it just struck me as an interesting concept, but Lynne Kelly quickly showed me I was in for so much more. You may think deaf culture and marine biology might be an unlikely pairing, but Kelly manages to seamlessly blend the two into her narrative. I know very little about deaf culture and absolutely loved being dropped into the middle of it through Iris’ point of view. She is not a mopey, sorry for herself character. If she does get frustrated with people, it’s with the ones who don’t take the time to know her where she’s at, and the strength of that characterization speaks volumes to young readers. She learns to handle her frustrations in better ways and be the bigger person, something many of us are still learning to do. 

Whatever the risk of exclusivity the book might have faced with its content is deftly handled in the way that it is presented. Song for A Whale could have easily and justifiably been a book for a very select group of kids, but Kelly doesn’t stop there. Iris’ deafness may not be something that kids can universally understand, but Iris’s resulting struggle to feel a sense of belonging, find her tribe, and comprehend the uniqueness of her world are all things just about every young person faces. Kelly pulls the familiar out of the unfamiliar and creates a narrative with something for everyone. 

Add to that mix an interwoven narrative following the whale Iris is trying to reach and you can’t help but feel all those dormant longings for belonging that only a book can bring out. You want the whale to be heard and no longer swimming the vast ocean all alone. You want Iris to find a place to belong again and have that same sense of camaraderie she had before her grandfather died. You want these things because you were once or still are a kid who wanted something similar for yourself. It doesn’t matter the circumstances, longing for a place to belong is a universally understood journey that rings true in the pages of Kelly’s book. 

We all want a place to belong, so it’s no wonder it feels like a personal triumph by the end of Kelly’s narrative. Song for A Whale is a rich story of belonging that invites any reader to address that same search for their own voice and home as Iris reaches out to the unlikely friendship of a lonely whale singing a song for one. 

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