age range: 8-12 years
genre: contemporary fiction
Lynne Kelly’s website
curriculum and discussion guide
At its luminous heart, Song for a Whale is a tale about longing for connection and finding it in the most magical and unexpected of places. Fascinating, brave and tender, this is a story like no other about a song like no other. A triumph.
—Katherine Applegate, Newbery Award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan
Song for a Whale is beautifully written and is such an important story for kids with big struggles in their lives. I fell into Iris’s world from the first chapter. Lynne Kelly does an amazing job telling the story from Iris’s perspective.
—Millicent Simmonds, actress, Wonderstruck and A Quiet Place
A quick-moving, suspenseful plot takes her from junkyards to a cruise ship as she [Iris] gains the confidence to stand up for herself and take control of her life. Written by a sign-language interpreter, this story incorporates important elements of Deaf culture and the expansiveness and richness of ASL…this remains a satisfying, energetic read. Iris’ adventures will engross readers.
The strength of the book is its strong portrayal of Iris as a deaf girl in a hearing world and an intelligent 12-year-old in headlong, single-minded pursuit of her goal.
Subtly and poignantly drawing a parallel between the girl and whale, Kelly (Chained), who has worked as a sign language interpreter, relays Iris’s venture with credibility and urgency. This finely crafted novel affectingly illuminates issues of loneliness, belonging, and the power of communication.
Iris’s depth of empathy, the joy she feels working with radios, and the skillful way she navigates two different worlds of communication create an authenticity that will resonate with Deaf and hearing readers alike… An uplifting tale that’s a solid addition to most collections; especially recommended for libraries needing stronger representation of Deaf protagonists. —School Library Journal
Please tell us about your book.
Song for a Whale is about twelve-year-old Iris, who feels most at home in her electronics workshop where she repairs antique radios. She’s the only deaf student at her school, so she can’t talk to the other kids there. And she’s a frequent guest at the principal’s office. She always loved spending time with her deaf grandparents, but Grandpa is gone now and Grandma isn’t the same without him. One day in science class, Iris learns about Blue 55, the loneliest whale in the world, who sings at a frequency unintelligible to all other whales. Iris immediately feels connected to the whale and hatches a plan to reach out to him. With her Deaf grandmother by her side, Iris sets out on a trip from Texas to Alaska to find Blue 55 and let him know someone hears his song.
What inspired you to write this story?
Learning about the real 52 hertz whale, who sings at a frequency of about 52 hertz instead of 10 to 20 like most baleen whales. His song has some characteristics of blue whale and fin whale songs, so maybe he’s a hybrid of the two. He’s been around since the late 80s that we know of, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of him before. I was fascinated, wondering what life was like for a whale who sang like no other. I started reading as much as I could about him, and soon started writing about him.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
Yes, I learned a lot about whale songs, which I enjoyed because I’m so interested in animal communication. Some recent recordings of the 52 hertz whale song suggest that there could be more than one source of the song. Maybe there’s a small population of whales that sing it. Also the song has been growing lower over time, so it’s more like 47 hertz now.
The humpback whales are the symphony players of the sea—they’re the ones most people think of when the think of whale songs. They have a huge range of sounds, from very low to very high, and the songs can go on for hours. What I love most is that a pod will pick up snippets of songs from one in a different region of the world. Bowhead whales are known as the “jazz musicians of the sea,” because they constantly improvise new songs.
What are some special challenges associated with introducing a setting your audience might be unfamiliar with?
Much of the book takes place aboard an Alaskan cruise, a place not many readers will have seen. I think the challenge is in describing the setting clearly enough for readers to envision it without going on so long that the description drags or takes them out of the story.
I was fortunate enough to be able to take on two week-long interpreting assignments for deaf people taking Alaskan cruises, so that helped a lot with the setting details. One of those assignments was shortly after I started working on the story, and the second was a year later. That first trip informed some of the early scene work I was doing and the second one was really helpful during the revision stage. I got to see the sights that Iris and her grandmother would be sailing past, the towns they’d stop in, and the ship itself.
One thing that helps get the unfamiliar setting description in there while still moving the story along is to have the setting do more “work” in the scene. For a scene where the ship is trying to make it through a fjord, I put that at a part of the story where Iris isn’t sure she’s going to succeed in her journey. I tried to show the walls of the mountainside seemingly closing in on the ship as they navigate through the icy waters. The ship captain finally has to give up and turn back, and Iris worries that she’ll have to do the same thing.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Teachers can use the text to connect to lessons on sound waves, whale songs, sign language and deafness, poetry, ocean life, and geology. And here’s a downloadable curriculum and discussion guide!
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