Iris is a twelve year old girl who loves fixing radios. She is also Deaf and living in a family that doesn’t always quite get her. When she hears about a whale who is also having trouble finding connection, she sets out on an incredible journey. Song for a Whale is a book for anyone who wants to be heard, wants to know they are not alone, and loves to read about the amazing world of animals and the power of human connection.
Lynne Kelly answered some questions for me to celebrate Song for a Whale on its book birthday!
Christine: Poetry is a huge thread in this novel. Do you mind talking a little bit about how sign poems work in American Sign Lanugage? We hear a bit in the book, but I’d love to hear more. I love the richness of literature that pulls in other genres. This book has science and fiction and poetry, amazing!
Lynne: Yes, Deaf poets create some lovely work! I decided to include the poetry in the story to illustrate the versatility of American Sign Language.The language that Iris shares with her grandmother is as rich and complex as any other; they can argue, discuss how they feel, tell jokes, and make up stories and poems.
I think too it shows the contrast between these two worlds she’s straddling–here’s something she’s always enjoyed doing with her grandparents.
Here’s an excellent NBC news segment about Deaf poets doing Deaf poetry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRcwVRf5BS8
The last page of the Song For a Whale curriculum guide has more information about Deaf poetry, and a link to linguist and author Clayton Valli’s Dandelions.
Christine: In other interviews you said that Chained (your first novel for children) took three years to write. How long did Song for a Whale take you from inspiration to finished manuscript?
Lynne: For me, it was quick–just over a year from idea to submission-ready. Of course after that there were rounds of revisions, as always. Chained took more research, but mainly it took so long because it was the first book I wrote, so I was learning about writing along the way.
Christine: I don’t want to say too much, but Iris isn’t the only one who takes a journey of transformation. I’ve read in other interviews that you decided to give her grandparents who are Deaf to show the richness of her communication in ASL and her comfort with being Deaf. How did you tap into the grandparent’s journey? Did the characters tell you, or was that kind of loss something you wanted to explore?
Lynne: I knew that I wanted Iris to have some family members who were fluent in sign language, to show that contrast between home and school and the difference between the relationships– naturally, Iris feels more understood and fulfilled when she’s with people who share her language and experience.
But for her to be more compelled to track down the lonely whale she learns about, I wanted things in even the good parts of her life to be not quite right. She wants to get back to the way things used to be with her grandparents, but Grandpa is gone and Grandma isn’t herself anymore, lost in her grief. It’s not something I set out to explore, but I think it ended up making the story more universal; grief is something we all have to experience. We have to work through it and find that though we’ll always miss the person we’ve lost, we’ll be okay.
Christine: I recently read an article about writing Deaf literature and who writes it and why. What I found most interesting about the article, and why I love to read outside my experience, is that I had never heard about the ways to write down speech that is signed. How did you decide on using italics and the tags you used in the book?
Lynne: Since ASL isn’t a written or spoken language, authors have used different conventions to indicate signed dialogue. At first I used italics only, but at times it might not have been clear what was signed and what was internal dialogue. My editor, agent, and I discussed some options and the examples in this article by author Laura Brown, and decided to keep the italics to differentiate it from spoken English, but add quotation marks to indicate that the lines are part of a conversation. Also it treats the sign language dialogue like any other, with quotes.
Christine: Thank you so much for answering questions about this brilliant book. To wrap up, any cool whale facts you didn’t get to include you’d love to share?
Lynne: Humpback whale songs get more complex over time, as they make up new patterns and even borrow snippets of songs from other groups of whales. Then they seem to hit a complexity wall and return to more simple melodies. Bowhead whales are called the “jazz musicians of the sea” since they’re constantly improvising new songs. I’d love to know what it all means!
Lynne Kelly has always loved reading, and fell in love with children’s literature all over again when she worked as a special education teacher. Her career as a sign language interpreter has taken her everywhere from classrooms to hospitals to Alaskan cruises. She lives near Houston, Texas with her adorable dog, Holly.