Genre: Middle Grade Contemporary
Diverse Rep: Deaf MC + side character of color
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.🌙
“Sound can move anything if it’s strong enough.”
**I received an ARC of this book through my work. While I am grateful for the opportunity to review, this in no way influences my opinion of the book.**
When 12-year-old Iris learns about a whale called Blue 55, who can’t be understood by other whales because he sings at a different pitch, she’s drawn to help. Using her wiz kid skills with electronics, she crafts a song at Blue’s frequency. Despite her parents’ refusal to understand, Iris manages to travel all the way to Alaska in search of one lonely whale, determined to let him know that he’s not alone.
I picked up this book for the beautiful cover, but I decided to read it as soon as I learned that the main character is Deaf.
It’s been a looong time since I’ve read anything Middle Grade, but this story really sucked me in. I was impressed by Iris and her skills at deconstructing and fixing old radios. While I don’t know much about whales, I enjoyed getting to learn more about their communication skills. Lynne Kelly’s poignant and descriptive writing really helps the reader feel Iris’s loneliness. I haven’t read a lot of MG books, so I don’t know how it compares, but I found this a really fun read that didn’t feel “dumbed down” for kids.
Blue 55, the whale who sings differently from the others, acts as a metaphor for Iris and her struggle to connect with hearing people.
Iris quickly becomes obsessed with helping him, because she understands so deeply understands what it’s like to feel unable to communicate with people. At home, Iris has her hearing family, who do pretty well at using sign language but don’t truly understand her much of the time. Iris has her grandmother, who’s also Deaf, but both she and Grandma are mourning the loss of Grandpa. Grandma’s healing is a big part of the story as well, which was beautiful to see.
This kind of story is so important, not only for hearing kids to understand what it’s like for someone who’s different from them, but for Deaf kids to see themselves represented. My only real “concern” with this book is that it might encourage kids to solve their problems by running away from home, which isn’t really a great thing to promote. It’s pretty clear that Iris’s parents are mostly okay with things in the end, too, which I felt was a little unrealistic. For more on this perspective, check out this review.
Iris as a character is believable, spunky, and incredibly relatable.
Her loneliness, while specific, really hit home for me. I think most kids struggle to be understood by and fit in with their peers at some point, and I vividly remember my feelings of invisibility at this age—and I spoke the same language as my peers!
I loved watching Iris grow and progress in the story. In the beginning, she’s very isolated, communicating only with her friend Wendell who attends another school. As the only Deaf kid in school, Iris resents Nina, a girl who attempts to learn sign language but mostly just flails around. Later, though, we see Iris learn to reach out through her friendship with Bennie, who shows Iris that hearing people can be her friends too. Lynne Kelly is not Deaf, but has made her career as a sign language interpreter. It’s my understanding that she spoke to Deaf people while writing this book. I would defer to Deaf readers to verify the accuracy of the rep.
Iris’s grandma was also a wonderful character. For such a hopeful book, Song for a Whale does a great job at showing the process of grief. At the beginning of the story, Grandma is in a cloud of sadness, but through the journey with her granddaughter she begins to come back to life.
Overall, do I recommend:
I love that there are kids’ books with this kind of representation as well as the hopefulness of the storyline. I will definitely be recommending this book to my customers at work, as well as to anyone who’s interested in reading more Middle Grade books.