Lynne Kelly’s middle-grade novel, Song for a Whale, grew organically. The main character, Iris, is a 12-year-old Deaf girl who feels isolated from her school and family. Since Kelly is a sign-language interpreter you might assume her goal was to capture the experience of a Deaf character, but you would be wrong. Much like her award-winning first novel, Chained, it began with an animal; in this case a whale.
Kelly found the 52-hertz whale when scrolling through Twitter one day. This very real whale is known as “The Loneliest Whale in the World” because he sings at 52 Hz, a frequency much too high for other whales to understand. He sings and sings and never gets a response. After seeing that Tweet, Kelly could not get the 52-hertz whale out of her head. She had to write a book about him. With her usual research tenacity, Kelly started reading everything about that specific whale and whales in general. She talked to experts, fact-checking her fictionalizations of the whale to make them as believable as possible while the story started to take shape.
When Kelly started to think of a human counterpart to the linguistically isolated whale she realized a Deaf character might be the perfect choice. As an interpreter, Kelly witnessed students struggling to connect when they are the only Deaf student in their school. She also knew that is was surprisingly common for one or both parents of Deaf children to have limited fluency in sign-language, making it isolating even at home. This isolation could create a connection with the whale strong enough to drive the action in the novel.
The novel is the story of Iris, who is driven to create a song for the lonely whale and then engages her grieving grandmother on an epic adventure to play a song so the whale can hear it. When creating Iris, Kelly layered into her character an obsession with radios. This was inspired by a former client who, at a young age, had a knack for fixing radios even though he could not hear them. Only much later in the writing process did Kelly realize how that skill would play an important part in the novel’s resolution.
While she may not have set out to capture the Deaf experience, after being pushed by her editor Kelly filled the novel with details to both normalize sign-language and show how uniquely rich it can be. She included descriptions of subtle hand-shape changes, cozy dialogue, jokes, karaoke, code-switching, and hand-shape poems. Kelly fictionalized the whale to be 55-hertz instead of 52 because two 5s in sign-language worked better in the hand poems. This richness was largely made possible through Iris’ interactions with her deaf Grandma. Grandma not only gives Iris someone to communicate with, she also demonstrates times of satisfaction and joy in Iris’ life. “Iris doesn’t want to change who she is, she just wants to better connect with other people,” said Kelly.
Grandma was in the novel from early on but her character grew as a solution to one of the biggest challenges in writing the book. Kelly wanted Iris to gain her own strength and to grow into her own advocate by acting independently, but Iris is only 12 and the novel had to be believable. In an early draft, Iris ‘borrowed’ money from her deceased grandfather’s credit card to make the journey and traveled alone in large chunks of the story. In revision, it was clear committing a felony would not endear Iris to readers and there was no way a minor would logistically be able to do the things Kelly had written. In order for it to work, Kelly had to reshape the Grandma character. Grandma had always been grieving for her lost husband, but Kelly was able to build on that, making Grandma more of a carefree spirit happy to help Iris with her adventure while at the same time recapturing her own joy. Iris remains the leader of the mission, but Grandma is an inspiration, a balance, and co-conspirator.
Song for a Whale may be the story of a Deaf girl and an unusual whale, both struggling to find connection, but overcoming isolation is something both deaf and hearing people can relate to. At the book launch in Kelly’s hometown, a young girl asked the author to sign the dedication page instead of the inside cover. The girl pointed to the dedication, which reads ‘To everyone who has felt alone’ and said, “I feel like that.” For that girl and so many others, this is a novel where readers can find their own connection.
Song for a Whale was published February 5. Lynne Kelly’s first novel, Chained, was named to seven state reading lists and won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award. She lives in Houston. Her next project will be about primates, though she hasn’t decided yet between lemurs or chimpanzees. You can find her online at lynnekellybooks.com or on Twitter @LynneKelly.
Elizabeth is a writer, designer, professor and dedicated bookworm.