In Song for a Whale, 12-year-old Iris becomes obsessed with a whale whose song is so off-pitch he’s become unrecognizable to other whales. She feels compelled to communicate with this whale and to let him know that he’s not alone. In fact, she’s willing to break family and school rules to reach him. She knows how horrible it feels to be misunderstood. As a deaf kid in a hearing world, she understands being an outsider very well. Even her parents (especially her father) avoid accepting her for who she is. But Iris is determined to reach out to a misfit from another species to let him know that someone understands his loneliness, even if she’s only human.
This interesting exploration of communication between members of a community choppily achieves its a goal. Song for a Whale looks at the essence of belonging: the ability to be understood. Iris communicates in many ways — she speaks sign language, she fixes old radios until they can sing again, she makes sign-language poetry with her grandparents using the shape of her hands to determine the shape of the poem. But she feels left out of the world around her. She relies on an interpreter, her family, or anyone around her to explain to her what she can’t hear. Kids will appreciate the topic of what it means to be misunderstood and seemingly alone.
There is real poetry in the book since it explores metaphors of being an outlier of the school — both the hearing, human school and the school of sea mammals. But there are moments where Iris’ announcements about her obsession get repetitive and a little boring. At a key point in the story, something that she had the genius to make is literally cast aside without much ado, which might make kids wonder why she spent so much time making this thing that she seems to abandon. But the ends outweigh the means, and the miracle of communication is finally understood by many, thanks to a deaf girl who isn’t afraid to take risks.