Rating: 4 1/2 stars
“How to Speak Dolphin” by Ginny Rorby is a great middle grade book that brings in much to discuss and for kids to think about. It’s about Lily, who lives with her stepfather and half-brother. Her half-brother is autistic and is very difficult to deal with. Her stepfather, a doctor, seems distant and constantly preoccupied with Adam, the brother. Lily’s mother died a few years before, and Lily misses her horribly.
The story deals with Lily’s reluctance to make friends since the time she invited someone over to swim in their pool and the girl made fun of Adam. And Rorby pulls no punches when it comes to having a family member who is pretty severely autistic. “He’s kicking and flailing his arms, and he’s pooped his pants. Kind of like my life — the smell is awful.”
Rorby uses first person narrative to really share Lily’s thoughts and feelings, and the reader really feels a connection to Lily and her despair and her loneliness. Lily finally makes a friend, Zoe, who is blind. Somehow Lily feels that Zoe will understand Adam — as they both have handicaps. What emerges is that Zoe identifies much more with Nori, a dolphin who was captured when very young because she was sick. Lily’s stepfather is a oncologist and is called in to consult on Nori. In the process, he wants to use dolphin therapy in hopes of making Adam better.
Adam does love the dolphin, but Lily is convinced that the therapy is not going to “fix” Adam. And Zoe is appalled that Nori might never be reunited with her mother and set free because Adam’s dad wants to use Nori for the therapy. Many questions arise. Is it all right to use and perhaps harm animals if it benefits a human? Do animals have the right to be free? At what point is it worth taking a risk (that Nori’s cancer might return but she’ll be in the ocean and unable to be treated) in order to live a full, happy life? What makes a family? And not a question, but making for a meaty discussion is the fact of how the other students treat Lily, a newcomer to the fancy school and fancy neighborhood.
This would be a great read aloud, and it would be a great jumping-off point for an inquiry learning project about dolphins, dolphins in captivity, aquatic life, and how oil spills affect the wildlife.
Please note: This review is based on an final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Scholastic Press, for review purposes.