Song For a Whale: the story of a Deaf girl and a whale both searching for connection
Published on: 05 May 2019 Author: Lynne Kelly
Lynne Kelly, author of Song for a Whale, talks about how her new children's book brings together the tale of an unusual whale and her day job as a sign language interpreter.
Illustration of a whale by Nadia Shireen
This story came to be because of one unusual whale. In 2015, I learned about the 52 hertz whale, also known as “52 Blue,” who sings at a frequency unlike other whales. While most baleen whales communicate at a frequency of around ten to 20 hertz, this whale’s song is at around 52 hertz. That’s a tuba-like frequency for us humans, but it’s a high one for whales.
52 Blue has been singing this unusual song off the US Pacific coast at least since the late 1980s. I was fascinated, and had to find out more. What was life like for an animal who couldn’t talk to others? It’s an impossible question to answer, but one I wanted to explore. I read everything I could find about this whale, and soon started jotting down notes that led to story scenes.
Iris: the only Deaf student at school
So the beginnings of this new story were unfolding, but I needed a character – one who’d be compelled to track down this whale. Then it hit me. I work with people every day who are surrounded by people who don’t share their language. I’ve been a sign language interpreter for over 25 years, and some of my first interpreting jobs were in public school classrooms. My work still takes me there occasionally, and I’ve been able to work with some smart and funny kids. And I’ve seen the frustrations they experience because of communication barriers and the isolation that comes with being one of only a few Deaf people around.
I came up with the character of Iris, who’s the only Deaf student at her school. When she learns about the whale known as Blue 55 (based on the 52 hertz whale), she feels an immediate connection to him. Iris hatches a plan to let the lonely whale know that someone does hear his song.
Content to sing your own song
As writers, we seek to connect to readers universally through a character’s specific journey. Though Song For a Whale is a story of one girl and a whale searching for connection, I think everyone can relate to that need to belong somewhere.
At my hometown book launch, a reader asked me to sign her copy of Song For a Whale on the dedication page instead of on the title page as usual. She pointed to the dedication, ‘To everyone who’s ever felt alone”, and said, 'I feel like that.' I hope that she and many other readers will find a connection to Iris and her quest to find her place.
But what about that whale – is he really lonely? That’s another impossible question to answer, and one Iris has to ask herself. Would he really want someone to find him, or are we the ones who need to reach out? Maybe it doesn’t matter to the whale that no other whale answers his calls. I like to think he’s perfectly content swimming along his own path, singing a song that’s his alone.
And now... A few fun facts about sign language!
- There are approximately 300 signed languages all over the world. Like spoken languages, sign languages are developed by the people who use and share that language, so they emerge and evolve independently of a country’s spoken language. British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are quite different. Even the signed alphabets are different, with ASL using a one-handed alphabet and BSL a two-handed alphabet. There are also regional differences within a country, like accents!
- Sign language is three-dimensional (3D). This might seem obvious since signers use the space in front of them to communicate, but there are advantages to 3D languages. An event like a car crash can be shown concisely, with the hands showing where the cars came from and where they impacted. Many verbs are directional, so in ASL I’d sign a phrase like 'I give you' with a single sign, “give,” moving from me to you.
- Communicating with a signed language uses the same area of the brain as spoken language. The parts of the brain that are activated when speaking are near the areas used for hearing sounds and using the vocal chords. It makes sense that the areas used for sight would be active when signing, right? But brain scans comparing Deaf and hearing people show that the same areas are activated when communicating, whether using sign language or spoken language.
- It’s easier than ever to learn! More and more schools are teaching sign language courses and accepting sign language as a foreign language credit. Deaf people who are native signers are the best models of the language, and even if you don’t have courses near you, there are some great (and free!) online sources.
Here are some BSL resources to check out:
- British Deaf Association
- Access Ambassadors CIC have a list of the top ten websites for learning BSL for free
And some of my ASL favourites:
- ASL University has courses and a huge online dictionary; also look at their lessons on their excellent YouTube channel
- Gallaudet University is offering new sign language lessons online
- Marlee Matlin’s Marlee Signs app