“Song for a Whale” by Lynne Kelly follows her first book, the award-winning novel “Chained.” Kelly’s writing is as beautiful as ever, and the story just as touching — and perhaps more accessible to young readers as the setting is in the United States instead of India. It’s a story about Iris, who is deaf, and the connection she feels for a whale named Blue 55, who is unable to communicate with other whales.
The loneliness both Iris and Blue 55 feel is deftly and imaginatively described by Kelly in alternating voices. While Blue 55’s voice appears infrequently, it’s the perfect compliment to Iris’ story about her life being the only deaf student in a school where she really has no friends. Iris’ grandfather recently died, and her grandmother is having a difficult time adjusting to being alone.
Kelly creates a main character with lots of depth. There’s a lot going on in Iris’ life and there’s a lot about Iris that is making her life difficult. Her father has barely learned ASL (American Sign Language) and so it’s difficult to converse with him and really share her feelings. Her mother doesn’t want to hear about Iris’ discontent with her school. Iris is fascinated with fixing old radios, and she’s a whiz around anything electronic. She hangs out at the local junkyard looking for spare parts to radios.
When Iris learns about Blue 55, she feels that they are kindred spirits. Blue 55 is alone and unable to communicate with other whales. He swims the ocean looking for companionship and is unable to express his feelings in a way other whales will understand. Not only does Iris feel compassion for Blue 55, she feels she understands him in a unique way. In fact, Iris figures out a way to make a song that Blue 55 will be able to understand. After recording it with the help of others at her school, she must figure out how to bring the recording to Blue 55, who is 3,000 miles away in Alaska, and play it to him.
Not only is the story filled with adventure as Iris and her grandmother fly away to Alaska, it’s filled with thoughtful commentary on how even people who appear to have friends and family can feel lonely and isolated. The writing is lyrical, and Kelly beautifully and poetically describes those feelings when Blue 55 dives deep into the ocean because at the surface are all the whales who can’t communicate with him and who drive him away. She writes:
“The depths were emptier, darker, quieter. Yet less lonely, because there was no one to answer his calls with silence.”
While the book is absolutely a gem and will be greatly enjoyed by readers young and old, it’s also a book that would really benefit from being read aloud by a teacher or parent, or being read in a group so that the thoughtful, complex ideas and the social issues about being different can be fully explored.
Fans of “Chained” will be thrilled with this book that’s just as emotional and gripping and perhaps even more thoughtful, poignant, and poetic.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.