Iris has always had a slight connection to whales, because she was named in honor of one. The day she was born, a whale beached itself in their hometown, and her family named her the same name scientists gave the whale, as its life left the world when hers began. But Iris’s connection to these creatures truly clicks when her teacher shares a video about a very unique whale, called Blue-55 by scientists, sometimes called the loneliest whale. Blue-55 is a hybrid breed, and sings a unique song that other whales he meets cannot understand due to the unique frequency of his tone. Iris can relate – she was born deaf, and she also hasn’t quite connected to most of her family and peers.
Iris has a knack for the science of sound, having developed a talent for fixing up old radios from the neighborhood junk shop. She becomes intent on connecting with Blue-55 and creating a song he will recognize so he knows someone is out there thinking of him. She brings in the talent of the school band to create a song only a whale could love, and beseeches her parents to allow her to travel to Alaska where biologists are hoping to tag the animal. But her parents aren’t convinced. By roping in her grandmother, another deaf person in her family and one of the few she can truly feel at home with, she is able to take matters into her own hands, setting off on a journey to meet the loneliest whale in the world and hopefully move beyond her own profound loneliness too.
I’m on a “great book” spree, and this one is another huge hit! Ocean life, music, deaf culture, and technology all blend into a beautiful story of belonging and connection. The story truly focuses on Iris which is nice (as there’s a lot of friendship drama in this age group’s literature that I have gotten a little exhausted of reading), and we also get an expansive view on the life of a deaf person. The author brings her own experience as an interpreter as well as viewpoints from deaf people she’s met to introduce readers who are unfamiliar to both the frustrations and joys of the deaf community. I especially loved reading about American Sign Language and its variations. Iris and her grandfather (also deaf) liked to create stories and poems, riffing off a particular hand shape in ASL and only using terms that include that shape. What a lovely thing to read. (And I’d love to actually see this in practice. I’ll update this review if I find any videos.)
I also found Iris’s passion for fixing radios to be very endearing, and a particular plot point around one of her radios, a 1930s Philco, was very moving, which I never expected to write! The reader learns a lot about radio technology, deaf culture, and whales, all woven in seamlessly with the story. Blue-55 is based on an actual whale named 52-Hertz, though Kelly created a unique fictional life and circumstances for her whale (including some chapters told from his point of view, which are lovely).
Must read for middle schoolers and anyone who likes reading in a unique set of shoes.