These days, my work of trying to get books celebrating marginalized voices into kids’ hands seems too little, too slow. I’m trying to find meaningful ways to support more current and active anti-racism work, while still keeping on with sharing these books in hopes that the next generation will continue this work. I know the problem isn’t new, and it’s always upsetting, but this newest outbreak is hitting hard.
Today’s books are both middle grade that I listened to on audio, featuring very different girls, but both from minority or marginalized communities. Song for a Whale was on my official #CybilsReadDown list. I discovered Keep it Together, Keiko Carter while researching my Asian-Pacific-American Heritage books on Hoopla list and listened while waiting for more of my holds on Libby to come in.
Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly. Read by Abigail Revasch. Audiobook from Listening Library, ASIN B07M959KWM. Print from Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2019. ISBN 978-1524770235. Listened to audiobook on Libby; ebook also on Libby.
12-year-old Iris was named for a whale that beached in her town shortly before she was born. Her best friend at school is her sign language interpreter, since most of the other Deaf kids in the area go to the Deaf school, and she can’t talk to the kids at her school. (Iris has always wanted to go to the Deaf school, where her best friend Wendell goes, but her mother thinks she’ll be able to make friends with the neighborhood friends better if she goes to the local school.) This, plus a teacher who seems to delight in getting her in trouble, have led to a lot of behavior issues at school.
Iris is also struggling with the recent passing of her grandfather, who was also Deaf, and who started Iris on her hobby of repairing antique radios. Since then, her grandmother has retreated into herself, leaving Iris cut off from another person she could talk to.
When her (much more understanding) science teacher tells the class about a whale who can’t communicate with other whales because of singing on a different frequency, Iris is inspired. She doesn’t need to be able to hear to analyze the sound frequencies of the song or feel it played through speakers, and she decides to make a song for Blue 55, which the wildlife sanctuary where Blue 55 regularly visits could play for him and let him know he’s not alone. This involves a whole lot more working with other people than Iris is used to, including talking to the band teacher. But it turns out that making the song is just the beginning. She’s determined to be there when Blue 55 hears the song, and getting to Alaska from Texas – especially when her parents think she’s being unrealistic – will take every bit of ingenuity she’s got.
Lynne Kelly is a sign language interpreter, so there are lots of real-life details here, including Iris’ annoyance at a classmate who thinks she knows sign language, but signs so badly that Iris can’t understand her, to people who think if they talk loudly she’ll be able to understand them, and Iris’s father, who thinks he’s too old to learn ASL fluently, so frustrating to Iris when her friend’s family signs all the time to make sure he’s included.
Despite her lack of hearing, Iris is feisty, fiercely smart, empathetic, and determined to do things her way. I loved her, and thoroughly enjoyed her adventure. I’m so glad this won the Schneider Family award, and shout-out to my daughter’s literature teacher for reading it aloud to the class over quarantine. I listened to the official audiobook (also an Odyssey honor book), where the narrator does a great job of capturing Iris’s personality in the reading.
Other middle grade books for kids with hearing loss include You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P.! by Alex Gino and The Collectors by Jacqueline West, as well as Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green.
Keep it Together, Keiko Carter! by Debbi Michiko Florence. Narrated by Stephanie Komure. Scholastic Audiobooks, 2020. ASIN B0868X4Z57 ISBN 978-1338607529. Listened on hoopla; ebook on Libby.
Here’s a new middle grade offering from the author of the Jasmine Toguchi books.
Keiko Carter is looking forward to starting seventh grade with her two best friends, Jenna, also Japanese-American, and Audrey, who is white. There are already tensions, though, as Jenna spent all summer with her dad in a different state following her parents’ divorce and texting tapered off even as Keiko and Audrey continued getting together every day.
Although sixth grade is still middle school, seventh grade brings new privileges, including being allowed to go to the dances. Keiko has always set a theme for the friends every year – things like watching all the Miyazaki films – and this year wants them to have new Experiences and each to pick a club for all of them to join. But Audrey wants the theme to be boyfriends, which Keiko is open to but Jenna is much less sure about.
Even as she’s trying to patch up the differences between her friends – increasingly difficult as Audrey isn’t open to any kind of compromise – Keiko’s dealing with her mother’s switch from working part-time to suddenly working overtime, not even coming home for dinner; Audrey’s older brother making a point to track her down to call her names every day at school, and a very cute new boy from Michigan, who both seems to be flirting with her and regularly makes racist comments along the lines of “You’re good at math! It must be in your genes.”
Besides her friends, Keiko’s major passion is chocolate. Not only does she eat a lot of chocolate and have a killer hot chocolate recipe, but she uses chocolate metaphors and similes for just about everything. Keiko is a very appealing character, intensely loyal to those she loves, taking the first painful steps towards recognizing toxic relationships and asking for the help she needs from her family rather than always assuming she needs to fix everything. It also has a very sweet, middle school-appropriate romance – even if my son’s recent middle school dance experience consisted of playing card games with his friends, I have read that more middle schoolers are dating now than in the past, and this is perfect for those looking for tales of middle school romance and friend drama, with a healthy doses of chocolate and dog love.