Song for a Whale was a happy surprise for me! I read this book because the Mock Newbery group that I belong to on Goodreads voted for it to be our June 2019 read. (I did not vote for it.) I didn’t really know what to expect but I wasn’t all that excited about reading it. I was WRONG. Song for a Whale was interesting from both a character and subject matter aspect. I was quickly pulled into the story and it stayed that way for about 3/4 of the book.
The main character is Iris. She is 12 years old, loves electronics–especially old radios–and is deaf. As the only deaf student in her school, she often feels invisible, unheard and frustrated. Her struggles with communication often result in Iris being sent to the Principal for her behavior. Her maternal grandparents are also deaf and when we meet Iris she is remembering a special time with her Grandfather, who has since died. Her Grandmother has been stuck in her grief since his death. The two people Iris has the easiest time opening up to are now unavailable to her. Neither of her parents is deaf, but her father never fully learned to sign and, although her mother does sign fluently, Iris doesn’t feel her mom really hears her when she tries to talk to her–about school especially. Although she’s having a hard time at school, Iris does like her science class and teacher. As we get an introduction–through Iris–about what a day in school is like for her, her science teacher shows a video about Blue 55–a whale that has been discovered to sing a song at a different frequency from all other whales.
Iris learns that Blue 55 sings at a frequency of 55 hertz, while most whale songs are at a much lower frequency of around 20 hertz. Blue 55 seems to swim alone–rather than in a pod like whales typically do–and has a different migration pattern from other whales as well. It’s been theorized that Blue 55 is a hybrid of a blue whale and another whale species, and that, as a result, he is unable to communicate with other whales–he can’t speak to them in a way they understand due to the drastic difference in the frequency of his sound compared with theirs. Iris immediately feels connected to Blue 55. She also feels alone and is often frustrated by the inability of people around her to understand her when she tries to speak her own truth. Feeling like this is so familiar to everyone who has been (or is going) through that stage in life where you begin to seek out and discover who you are and who you want to be as you grow up. Iris has an added obstacle in that the fact she communicates primarily with ASL means the majority of people around her don’t understand her language.
Iris’ visceral connection to Blue 55 drives her to attempt both to solve the problem of Blue 55’s communication isolation and to meet Blue 55 in person. The rest of the story takes us through the journey to accomplish both these goals. The way in which one of the goals is managed feels a little contrived when compared to the rest of the story and therefore, so does the conclusion. Iris’ narration is occasionally interspersed with the viewpoint of Blue 55 as he swims in the ocean. These sections, while not poorly done, take away from the genuine feel of Iris’ voice and her circumstances and unfortunately weaken the impact of her story.These two factors were primarily responsible for my disconnecting a little from the story, as the plot seemed unrealistically manipulated–in contrast to the first 75% of the book. In general, those wobbles in the structure are overshadowed by the strength of Iris’ character and the deeper insights she finds in herself–and about those who surround her.
It’s important to note that Iris’ character is frustrated by the obstacles she finds to communication between her and others, not with her deafness. The author made a very conscious choice to have this be the case and it serves to strengthen the story and the reader’s ability to identify with Iris–as a person, as opposed to a deaf person. I also was curious about Blue 55–and whether he was real or not. In the Author’s Notes, Kelly does reveal that while Blue 55 is fictional, he is based on a real whale: Blue 52. Blue 52 has been dubbed ‘The Loneliest Whale in the World’ and you can see images of him on Google, hear recordings of his call (52 hertz) as well as more common whale music (20 hertz) on youtube. Theses same sources have more information if you are interested in learning about the real-life search for Blue 52.
Song of a Whale was a quick read, due to excellent pacing, a fully developed character in Iris and an interesting subject matter woven throughout. This would be a great independent or read-aloud choice for readers in grades 3-8. It would also pair nicely with classroom units on the mechanics of sound, ocean life and language/ASL.