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Talk About: Song For a Whale

Award, Core, Reading, Talk About

Published on: September 14, 2023

Written by: Gina Hagler

Song for a Whale

Talk About posts give you the key events and essential information you need to discuss a Core Book with the children in your life.

Cover of The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney

Song for a Whale
by Lynne Kelly

Song for a Whale tells the story of Iris, a twelve-year-old girl who is Deaf. Iris makes herself heard while helping Blue 55, the “Lonliest Whale in the World,” know that he is also heard. This book won the Schneider Family Book Award in 2020 for its artistic expression of the disability experience for an adolescent audience.

Lexile: 800L | Reading Level: Grades 3-7

Story World

Twelve-year-old Iris was born deaf and communicates with American Sign Language (ASL). She is the only Deaf kid in her school, which leaves her feeling very isolated. When she learns about Blue 55, a whale that sings in a hertz range that it seems no other whales can hear, she becomes determined to find a way to sing back to him. This book is about her struggle to accomplish her goal.

Key Characters

Their interactions with Iris tell the story:

Iris

Iris, born without hearing, is Deaf and communicates with American Sign Language (ASL). Since she is both the only deaf kid in her school and the only kid who signs, she communicates by writing back and forth with her classmates. Iris is happy enough, but not truly happy. She loves repairing old radios on her own or spending time with her grandparents who are both deaf and communicate very well in ASL. Iris’ mother, as the daughter of two deaf parents, signs with her. So does her brother, Tristan. Iris’ father doesn’t sign, and Iris wonders how it is okay with him to be unable to communicate with his own child. She wants to go to the school with deaf kids next year, but her mom wants her to stay in the school with hearing kids. When Iris learns about Blue 55, she contacts Andi, the scientist working on communcation with him. Iris shares her ideas with Andi and is determined to solve the communication issues that leave Blue 55 the “Lonliest Whale in the World.”

Blue 55

Blue 55 is a whale who sings a song that other whales don’t answer. It’s possible they don’t even hear his song because most whale songs are at thirty-five hertz or lower, while Blue 55 sings at fifty-five hertz. As we learn about Blue 55’s life from his point of view, we learn that he is singing a song that makes no sense to other whales. He is sometimes able to swim with them, but each time he does, they leave him behind once they realize they don’t share a song. Blue 55 is terribly lonely and trying his best to communicate with the other whales.

Nina/School

Nina is Iris’ classmate. Nina says she taught herself to sign but to Iris it seems that she mostly flaps her hands in front of Iris’ face. To the other kids, it looks like Nina is signing and Iris is being unfriendly. One day, it gets to be too much; Iris shoves Nina and gets in trouble for her actions. The principal doesn’t want to hear that Nina was literally in Iris’ face. Her teachers range from people who think talking in a louder voice will make a difference to those who just expect Iris to “get it” somehow. The only person in the school who can talk to Iris is her interpretor, who signs to her when others speak to her. The problem is, he’s not with her at lunch – the one time the kids can socialize.

Wendell

Wendell is Iris’ only Deaf friend. He is at a school with many other deaf students. His mother learned to sign and is an instructor at the school for the deaf. When they stop by his mom’s classroom one afternoon, Wendell signs with the other kids. Iris sees that they use signs she doesn’t know and are far more facile with signing than she is. She realizes she’s missing the chance to really connect with people her own age and begins to worry that she’s not going to be part of either the Deaf or hearing communities.

Bennie

Iris meets Bennie on the cruise to reach Blue 55. Bennie is hearing, but she is friendly immediately, more than happy to communicate by writing notes, and even learns some signs. When Bennie points out that Nina might have been sincerely trying to sign, it gives Iris a reason to reconsider her reaction to Nina’s efforts. Bennie helps Iris in her efforts to reach Blue 55 in time.

Andi

Andi is the scientist who is studying ways to communicate with Blue 55. She and Iris communicate through email, and Andi takes Iris’ suggestions seriously. She tells Iris that it would be a lot to ask to travel to Alaska to meet Blue 55 because she can’t be sure when he will be at her sanctuary. When it turns out that Blue 55 is en route to a different sanctuary and Iris heads there, Andi is in time to pluck Iris out of the water and talk to her about a future in acoustic biology.

Grandpa/Grandma

We only hear about Grandpa from others, but what we hear makes it clear that he was happy with his life and had a tremendous positive influence on Iris. It was he who introduced her to repairing old radios. It was he who signed poems in ASL with her. She misses him a great deal.
Grandma is struggling after the death of her husband. They met in college and were active in signing theater productions and other activities that appealed to them as people who were deaf. Their life togther was one of travel and possibilities. Now, Grandma lives in a nice enough community for the elderly that includes several deaf residents who also sign. It’s not enough, though, and she’s just not happy until she decides to take Iris on a cruise to Alaska to communicate with Blue 55.

Iris’ Family

Tristan – Iris’ older brother signs with her and has her back when she needs him to help her with her radio projects.
Mom – She grew up signing with her parents but is worried that if Iris spends too much time with others who sign, she will become immersed in Deaf culture and no longer need her.
Dad – He doesn’t sign. Iris wonders why this does not strike him as a major problem, since he cannot communicate with one of his children. When Iris takes off with Grandma to meet up with Blue 55, he realizes how important it is for him to be able to truly reach Iris.

What Does Iris Learn?

The messages/themes in this book speak to tweens:

  • Iris is old enough to be part of the decision about what she needs to be happy. She values her mom’s opinion, but what Iris wants is worth a discussion.
  • The work she’s done repairing old radios has given Iris the skills she needs to problem-solve and study the vibrations of sound at different hertz.
  • Everybody/thing needs to know that it is heard and understood.