Shannon Carriger talks to author Lynne Kelly about the whale who couldn’t speak to other whales, deaf culture, and the surprising connections between them–and more. Read our review of Song for a Whale here.
Shannon Carriger: The information that follows the book regarding 52 Blue gave context to the fictional Blue 55, but I’m curious if your own interest in whales came earlier. Specifically, given Iris’s Grandmother’s interest in the novel, did Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in any way shape the creation of this novel? If so, how?
Lynne Kelly: This story came about all because I found out about the 52 hertz whale. But yes, if I hadn’t had an interest in ocean life already, I wouldn’t have learned about him. An image of a whale flew by my Twitter feed one day, and thankfully I scrolled back to read the caption. It described the whale who sings at a frequency unlike other whales, and probably can’t communicate with others. He’s been out there at least since the late 80s, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known about him. From there I read everything I could about him, and pretty soon started writing the story. I’ve always been interested in animals, and I find animal communication especially fascinating.
Moby-Dick was never a favorite of mine, honestly, but I’ve always loved the description of the need to get to sea when one has a November in the soul, and that tied in well here with Grandma’s grieving. Of course the search for a whale is a parallel also, though it’s a far different kind of hunt. I knew that if Iris had read the story she’d be cheering for the whale!
SC: The poem handshape / sign language storytelling game has such a specific construction. Is this something you’ve observed deaf children use, or is it something of your invention? How might this game be used by hearing children to better communicate with deaf children?
SC: It isn’t something that’s used in conversation but is more of an art form that some deaf poets and storytellers use. Instead of the auditory rhyme of spoken poems, keeping the hands in the same shape throughout a signed poem gives it a visual “rhyming” effect. The last page of the Song For a Whale curriculum guide has a bit more about ASL poetry, with a link and description of one of deaf poet Clayton Valli’s poems.
SC: As a teacher myself, I loved the educational tone of some of the moments. When Iris first learns of Blue 55, the way she thinks about radio frequencies, there was information that was presented in ways that were eminently teachable. Was that a goal of yours in writing the book? How might this novel be used in classrooms?
LK: I didn’t set out to make any particular topic teachable, but I’m happy it worked out that way! I did want to make the content clear to readers who might be unfamiliar with those subjects. Teachers can use the text to connect to lessons on sound waves, whale songs, sign language and deafness, poetry, ocean life, and geology. The above-mentioned guide has some good discussion questions and curriculum connections.
SC: Iris’s relationship with her parents is so layered, specifically her interaction with her father, who loves her but feels distanced from her. What can their relationship teach families about how to connect with one another across divides?
LK: It surprises people that Iris’s dad doesn’t sign very well, but it’s surprisingly common for deaf people to have parents who never learn sign language. (Most deafness isn’t hereditary, so Iris is one of the lucky ones who has family members who are fluent in ASL.) I think things are improving now, but many parents are told by doctors or audiologists that using sign language will prevent their deaf children from speaking. Meanwhile, videos for teaching sign language to hearing babies are so popular now, since they’ll help with language development!
Of course it isn’t easy to learn a new language—it takes an investment of time and effort. Many parents haven’t had access to resources like sign language classes, but that’s improving now too with the availability of free online courses and videos. Early communication is so important, and we know now that establishing a language early in life makes it easier to learn another language (and any other subject) later. Families can work on learning sign language together, so the deaf child is included in conversations and is part of the family like everyone else.
A rare moment of connection between Iris and her dad is in the scene where he shows her the old recording of humpback whales he used to listen to as a kid. He does this after an argument at dinner when he was really dismissive of her, but he knew this was an interest they had in common. I think family members who are at odds can find a way to reach out to one another—just making that effort to sit down and communicate shows that you care about the person.
SC: Much of Iris’s discomfort comes from a well-intentioned student, Nina, and a rather clueless teacher. What can classroom teachers and classmates do to be more aware of and accommodating toward the needs of deaf students and classmates?
LK: Nina’s good intentions turn into an annoyance when she sees Iris as more of a project instead of a person. She doesn’t acknowledge Iris’s wishes or give her any agency during these attempts at conversation.
The students I’ve worked with have appreciated students and teachers who learn some sign language so they can communicate with them better. (Most people aren’t as overbearing as Nina!) It’s a good idea to follow the lead of the deaf person when communicating with them; some will want to sign as much as possible, even with a beginner, while others prefer to write notes back and forth for more efficiency. Bennie’s character is a good contrast to Nina—she’s willing to learn, knows she’ll make mistakes, and accepts correction from Iris.
Also, most teachers aren’t like Ms. Conn, thankfully! I don’t often come across a teacher who’s as unaccommodating as she is, but some people have had an experience with a teacher like that. Again, a willingness to learn goes a long way. And remember you’re not alone if you have questions—there’ll be a specialist like a deaf education teacher who will go over the student’s accommodations, and they’re a good resource to follow up with if you need something clarified or want to discuss how to meet the needs of your student.
SC: Iris’s interest in science and radios is refreshing given the domination of STEM fields by men. What drew you to creating a female protagonist with these interests? Was this a conscious commentary on the need to include young women in these fields of study and conversations?
LK: I’m not sure when I decided Iris would have the affinity for electronics, but early on when I was figuring out who this character would be who’d want to track down the lonely whale, I thought of Iris as a smart and funny deaf girl. Several years ago I interpreted for a deaf college student (who’s now an electrical engineer) who’d been working on antique radios and TVs since he was a kid. I always thought that was a fascinating hobby for a deaf kid to pick up, and I decided to give that skill to Iris. Her work with sound and electrical circuits seemed like a good connection to her interest in the whale’s song, but I didn’t know until much later that she’d use her electronics skills to solve her problem.
SC: The staff on the cruise ship has nametags which state their native country. Why was including this detail important to you as a writer?
LK: That was a setting detail—staff on cruise ships come from all over the world, and their name tags show their home country in addition to their name. It’s something I’ve noticed on the cruises I’ve been on, and I thought Iris would also notice that when she met people.
SC: The story is as much about Iris being metaphorically heard as it is about Blue 55 knowing he has been literally heard. In your work with adolescents, what have you learned regarding their need to feel seen and heard, and how can the adults who work with them do a better job fulfilling this need?
LK: Often deaf people get ignored because it’s so easy for hearing people to listen to a literal voice in the room. Like when Iris gets in trouble in the cafeteria, naturally the other student gets to tell her side of the story first because she can easily tell the teachers what happened, while Iris has to wait for her interpreter before she can explain her side. Of course not everyone is expected to understand sign language fluently, but notice when the deaf person has something they want to say. Then when you do get the message, give it as much weight and respect as you’d give to anyone else. Avoid the tendency to address the interpreter—look at the deaf person and speak to them as usual (instead of instructing the interpreter, “Tell him to…” or “Ask her…”). Talking to deaf students instead of around them shows respect and lets them know you’re listening.
This tendency to talk around deaf people happens with adults too. Occasionally I’ve had medical professionals say, “Oh, don’t interpret this part. I want to talk to his mom about him.” Uh, nope, your adult patient is right here, so we’re not playing along with that!
SC: I loved the decision to set the conversations between Iris and other deaf characters in italics. It made their communication very clearly a different kind of language in that its presentation was unique. Was this simply a stylistic choice, or did you want to convey something more?
LK: It was a stylistic choice, one that my editor and I had some discussion about. Originally, I’d had it in italics only, but that way it didn’t look different from Iris’s internal thought. We read this Disability in Kidlit post that addresses sign language conversations in written text and decided to go with italics plus quotation marks. The quotes because it is dialogue, just in a different language, and the italics set it apart from dialogue that’s spoken out loud.
SC: Finally, Iris’s grandmother’s grief is a tangible part of the narrative. There is no shying away from her loss, or Iris’s for that matter, of her late husband. Why was his loss so important to you to convey, and what do you hope readers will glean from this element of the novel?
LK: I think that Grandma’s grief contributed to the story on different levels, but I can’t remember which of my motivations for it came first! I knew that Iris would have a strong bond with her, though Grandma isn’t quite herself lately. Their relationship shows that this part of Iris’s life is quite fulfilling since she has someone who shares her language and life experience. It’s also a window into the kind of friendships Iris could have if only she went to a school with other deaf students. But now that Grandma is grieving and not wanting to interact much, Iris feels like the strongest relationship she has is slipping away from her. Then when she learns about the lonely whale, there’s even more of an impact since she’s feeling even more alone than ever.
Also I wanted Grandma to have her own journey throughout the story. Grief is something we’ll all have to go through, and it can feel like we’ll always be sad. But then we get to a place where we can experience happiness again, though life isn’t exactly the same as it was before, and we’ll still miss the person we’ve lost. Grandma’s feelings are universal, but we all have our own way of getting through the grief and moving on—most of us don’t run away to an Alaskan cruise ship!
Lynne Kelly has always loved reading, but while working as a special education teacher, she fell in love with children’s literature all over again. She lives in Houston, Texas, and works as a sign language interpreter while writing books for kids. Her first book, Chained, was a South Asia Book Award Honor and Crystal Kite Award winner. Song for a Whale is her second novel. Find her online at http://lynnekellybooks.com/
Shannon Carriger has been a reviewer for City Book Review since 2017. In addition to writing reviews, she is a teacher and writer who has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for poetry. Her work is forthcoming from or published in various publications, including Blood Lotus, Inscape Magazine, and The Midwest Quarterly. She lives in Kansas with her poet-professor husband and their dog Zelda, who is the sweetest of all beasts.