Today, as we continue to celebrate Disability Pride Month, we’ll discuss the exciting and beautiful middle-grade novel Song for a Whale by author and sign language interpreter Lynne Kelly. Being her sophomore novel, Song for a Whale, received the 2020 ALA Schneider Family Book Award. Established in 2004 by Dr. Katherine Schneider, the first blind student to graduate from the Kalamazoo public school system, the award recognizes children’s and teen novels that excel at disability representation. Dr. Schneider says of the books chosen for the award: “The disability experience in these wonderful children’s books is a part of a character’s full life, not the focus of the life” [ALA.org].
Iris is lonely. As the only deaf person at her school, she has difficulty communicating with anyone and spends most of her days talking to her interpreter or missing conversations altogether. Her grandparents, both deaf and speak using sign language, provide her with a refuge where she doesn’t have to worry about being understood. But since her grandfather’s passing, Iris has found it harder to communicate with her grandmother despite their shared language and wishes to be close to her again. Despite the language barriers, Iris is comfortable with her deafness but hopes for a community where she doesn’t have to worry about being left behind. That’s when she learns about Blue 55, a whale who sings at a frequency no one else can understand, giving it the nickname the “loneliest whale in the world.” And Iris is determined to let him know that he, like her, is not alone. Armed with a song at a frequency made just for him, Iris sets out to find Blue 55, even if it takes her all the way from Texas to Alaska.
For young readers and beyond, Song for a Whale exemplifies the mission of the Schneider Family Book Award. Iris is an incredible protagonist and role-model. She’s incredibly tech-savvy, spending her free time fixing antique radios and other electronics, so you don’t doubt for a second she is capable of greatness even if she can’t hear. During the journey, Iris gains the courage and ability to advocate for herself, even when the odds are against her. Author Lynne Kelly has included an Author’s Note at the end that covers everything from the whale that inspired the novel, and the deaf community that is an integral part of the story. For reading groups and classrooms, there are plenty of resources and activities to enjoy. The website Book Units Teacher has an incredible collection of downloadable activities and study guides. Kelly also has a resources page on her website Lynne Kelly Books, including visual whale calls and an Educator’s Guide.
If you’re apart of an older group who is hesitant to read children’s novels, I encourage you to give them a shot! There’s always more to learn. From the essay, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You are so Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell:
“When you read children’s books, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.”
If you’re interested in requesting Song for a Whale for your book club, you can find the Book Club Kit Request form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)
Kelly, Lynne. Song for a Whale. Yearling. 2019.