A Girl, a Whale, and a Song

42AEFFFC-CB18-45F1-BBF8-6D4F771C55FAIris 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.FF000E1D-64B4-441A-BFA5-64F1DDB4DD8D



Prison Song

02fd44da-fbec-46c8-8e15-dd7989daeac8Two stunning novels touch the heart of American history in a place that is still raw and aching. The stories of Jojo and Richie, and Dara and Lead Belly, will cling to your heart.

Current Day: Jojo is on his way to pick up dad from Mississippi State Penitentiary, the former site of Parcham Prison, a prison camp meant to extend slavery for black men for white profit.

1923: Dara is fleeing Midland, Texas,  after being outed in her small town as a lesbian. She gets a job and finds friendship and a way out of her own prison of fear, while seeing first hand the Imperial Prison Farm, another prison camp extending slavery for black men.

A piercing look at the history that shapes us, the choices we are thrown up against, and the powerful connection of family to lead us through, Sing Unburied, Sing and Sugarland are two novels you will be thinking and talking about long after you put them reluctantly down.

Bones tell tales: Human remains have been found under a school district building site. The remains are related to the Imperial Prison Farm in Fort Bend County, Texas. Read more…

Take me home: Ward (MacArthur Genius Grant Winner) takes PBS newshour on a tour of her hometown in Mississippi and talks about her influences and the power of seeing yourself in stories.



Winter of the Wolves

a4be6f79-dedd-427b-823c-a19dbf014537(Click image to buy indie!)

Victoria Scott’s new middle grade book, Hear the Wolves, is the perfect thriller to curl up with on a cold night. Not just for kids, this book had me up until the late hours, breathing hard, scared, and rooting for Sloan, a girl left alone in a blizzard in a small town in Alaska. Armed with two guns, only one with bullets that will protect her from wolves and bears, and a few townspeople who stayed behind when the rest of the town went to a nearby city to vote, they will have to find their way to the river. The river is the only way out to the city, and one of them is terribly injured. Blizzard conditions would be enough to make this arduous, days-long journey hard, but there is something else to contend with, wolves. Due to choice of the townspeople themselves, there were too many rabbits last season, and now there are too many wolves, and the rabbits are gone. The wolves are hungry. The humans are now the hunted.

A terrifically terrifying read that will make you think about fear, independence, the environment, and where we all fit into this world. The author’s note at the end is a piercing look into wolves and the stereotypes that surround them and will urge readers young and old to learn more about these majestic animals and think hard about how we often believe we have conquered the wilderness.

Love this book? Read more here:

Fiction for kids and adults



Nonfiction: Wolf Conservation and Sanctuaries

Bringing wolves back to Isle Royale National Park

W.O.L.F Sanctuary

Saint Francis Wolf Sanctuary

Frankenstein in Baghdad

Car bombs. Lost limbs. A strange man is gathering them up for something that is going to turn Baghdad upside down. When the body comes to life, each body part has an act to grind. What could be a slasher tale is an intricate examination of the human heart, war, and the roles everyone plays in revenge and peace. Structured with deference to the original, it is still fresh, reimagined, and just as horrifying and heartbreaking and culturally relevant. Winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Ahmed Saadawi, a film director and writer, has reimagined a classic for our age, one that will be a touchstone for the discussion of Frankenstein for years to come.

Favorite quotations for discussion:

“…all the security incidents and tragedies we’re seeing stem from one thing—fear.” (P.123)

“They didn’t know anything about him, but they were driven by that latent hatred that can suddenly come to the surface when people meet someone who doesn’t fit in.” (P. 131)

“I was careful about the pieces of flesh that were used to repair my body. I made sure my assistants didn’t bring any flesh that was illegitimate—in other words, the flesh of criminals, but who’s to say how criminal someone is?” (P. 156)

“Anyone who puts on a crown, even as an experiment, will end up looking for a kingdom.” (P.181)


Forbidden Love

alltheriverscoverLiat and Himli meet in a New York City coffee shop. Liat is an Israeli on a Fulbright scholarship. Himli, a Palestinian, is an artist, wild in hair and spirit, and the two are instantly attracted.

As they grow closer, and as Liat’s visa comes closer to expiration, so does their relationship, for meeting back in Palestine or Israel seems as impossible as the fate that brought them together. When the unthinkable occurs, Liat is left to tell the story. Continue reading “Forbidden Love”

Family is Complicated

mothers tell your daughtersFor some the word mother is comfort. For some it is fear. For some it is heartbreak. For many of us it is all of those things at the same time and then some. In this searing collection of short stories, Bonnie Jo Campbell lets us into the lives of mothers, daughters, grandparents, sisters, husbands, kids and all the people who make up our modern families who are trying to survive as best they can. Taking an unflinching view at post-industrial America, Mothers, Tell Your Daughters is a collection of voices that will stay with you long after the story is over. Continue reading “Family is Complicated”

Mother Love, Daughter Duty


under the udala tress“There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off…if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina. If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.”

So begins the coming of age story of Ijeoma, a young girl at the end of the civil war in Nigeria. Although the war has ended, a new war is beginning, a quiet war but equally devastating, a war of generations and beliefs, the growing up and away and back again between daughter and mother and daughter becoming mother.

Ijeoma is placed as household help with another child of war, Amina.  Amina is Hausa. Ijeoma is Igbo. The are both girls. And they fall desperately in love. Their relationship will send shockwaves out into both girl’s futures.

In lush prose, Chinelo Okparanta takes an unflinching look at the lack of freedom of LGBTQIA people in Nigeria, set on the small but powerful stage of two unbreakable relationships, Ijeoma and her mother and Ijeoma and her identity. A story of politics. A story of love. A story of womanhood. A story of family.

Winner of the Lambda Literary Award, Okparanta, takes us to the heart of a family and the heart of a nation. Okparanta has also published work in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and many other publications.

Interview with Chinelo Okparanta, “Champion of Love”

Book Club Discussion Guide from Okparanta’s website.

Click to buy Indie.