When Grandpa told a story, I saw it as clearly as if it were happening right there in front of me. His signing hands showed me the whale in an ocean that suddenly went quiet, swimming over there, over there, over there, trying to find the sounds again. Maybe that was why she’d been there on our Gulf of Mexico beach instead of in deep ocean waters where she belonged. Sei whales didn’t swim so close to shore. Only her, on that day.
Iris was named for the whale that beached itself on the day she was born, at her grandmother’s request. After second grade, her family moved to Houston, only able to visit her beloved grandparents once a year. Now 12, Iris misses her grandparents more than ever; after her grandfather passed away, her grandmother lost her spark and spends listless days in a senior housing complex. In her free time, Iris repairs radios that she gets from the junkyard, bringing abandoned antiques back to life. The vibrations from the speakers tell her when her work has been successful. Like her maternal grandparents, Iris was born Deaf.
School has been especially difficult since the move. The only Deaf student in her school, Iris relies on an adult interpreter who accompanies her to classes. He does not come to the cafeteria with her for lunch, leaving her alone to deal with well-meaning but uncomprehending fellow students.
She learns about Blue 55 in Science class. A whale who sings at 55 hertz, much higher than the usual range for whales, he sings into the ocean, but no one understands his song, and he cannot understand anyone else. Iris hatches a plan to record a song for Blue 55 to let him know that he’s not alone in the wide world. Now she just has to find a way to get it to him.
This is a lovely and poignant novel about the loneliness that so many of us feel. There are so many ways to communicate, which is shown so beautifully throughout the book. The desire to reach out and connect with another, to know that one is not alone, underscores the entire story. What tween (or person who has been a tween) has not had trouble understanding and making oneself understood by classmates, friends, and family from time to time?
Kelly is a long-time ASL interpreter, and her respect for Deaf culture shines through. For Iris, hearing or not hearing is not the problem. Her Deafness is just part of her, like hair color or eye color. It’s other people who are flustered or confused by it.
An Author’s Note at the end explains some of the mechanics of whale communication and the story of 52-Blue, also called the Loneliest Whale in the World, on whom Blue 55 is based. A second note on Deafness and Sign Language gives more information about Deaf culture, the development of ASL, and why Kelly made particular narrative choices. Finally, there is an illustration of the ASL for “Song for a Whale”.
Source: Checked out from my public library
Challenges: Read Harder 2020 (#21: A book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non))