Family Book Club: Song for a Whale
Reading level: middle grade
Synopsis: For Iris, 12 is a tough year. She goes to a mostly-hearing school, so she spends her days away from her fellow deaf friends, trying to effectively communicate with the kids around her who don't know sign language. Her hearing family is mostly fluent in sign language—her dad could use a few more lessons—but she's always had a really special connection with her deaf grandparents. Since her grandfather passed, though, her grandmother has kept to herself, and Iris feels like the one person she can communicate flawlessly with is the one person she doesn't know how to reach. The bright part of Iris's days is fixing and building old radios. She my not be able to hear, but she can feel their vibration, and that tells her what needs work.
This understanding of sound waves really comes in handy when Iris's science class learns about a whale dubbed Blue 55, a reference to the decibels at which he sings. This decibel range is so much higher than the range of whales around him that Blue 55 has been unable to communicate with his species—a woe Iris understands well. So she puts her skills to work. By collaborating with the researchers who study Blue and asking her fellow students for help, Iris is able to create a faux–whale song that falls within Blue's range. The creation is an achievement in itself, but it's not enough: Iris wants to see it in action. The researchers tell her when Blue should be swimming by their research station, but Iris's parents won't let her go. Her grandmother has other ideas, though, and the two of them run off to an Alaskan cruise in an attempt to see if Iris can communicate with Blue—and if they can communicate through their communal grief for Iris's grandfather.
Categories: ability, belonging, STEM, grief
- Iris loves building and fixing radios, and when she learns about Blue 55, she immediately wants to know everything about him, too. What are some things you're really interested in? Hobbies you love? Topics you could talk about all day long?
- Because Iris goes to a primarily-hearing school, she has a lot of trouble communicating with her classmates. Have there been times—due to a language barrier or otherwise—you feel like people aren't understanding you? What's helped you find middle ground with those people?
- Are there times you feel people around you are trying to communicate and you're not understanding? What steps could you take to make that process easier?
- Iris and her grandmother end up going on an Alaskan cruise to try and meet up with Blue 55 at a research facility. What's a trip you'd love to take that orbits around something you're really interested in—a vacation that has an educational aspect?
- Iris creates a song that hits the same decibel range as Blue 55's song in the hopes of making contact. If you could make contact with anyone—person, animal, alien, historical figure, etc.—who or what would it be? What would you be hoping to tell them? What would you want them to be able to tell you?
Activity: Lynne Kelly is not only a writer—she's also a sign language interpreter. This expertise and experience is what inspired her to write Song for a Whale, a book meant to bring understanding to a community often overlooked when we think of different languages. Kelly didn't start taking sign language courses until college, but you can start much earlier than that. YouTube has a ton of informational videos on the basics of sign language, and there some are highly rated apps to help you learn on the go.