Author Lynne Kelly’s experience as a teacher first brought her to children’s literature, but it was a passing story about a whale and her career as a sign language interpreter that inspired her newest novel for middle grade readers. Song for a Whale tells the story of 12-year-old Iris, a deaf girl who has recently lost her grandfather, who, upon learning of a unique whale that sings at a frequency no other whales can hear, decides to share a song to let the whale know he’s not alone. Kelly spoke with PW about being drawn to stories of people and animals, accurately depicting the deaf experience, and the challenges of finding a productive writing process.

From where did the idea for Iris and Blue 55’s stories begin?

Well, the whale came first. I was on Twitter one day and saw an image of a whale fly by. Thankfully, I scrolled back to read about it. It was a stock photo of a whale and a caption about the 52-hertz whale, which I had never heard of before. This was a whale that sings at a frequency unlike other whales, instead of 10 to 20 hertz, this whale sings at a 52-hertz frequency. The whale has been around at least since the late ’80s, maybe longer, but we didn’t have the hydrophones to pick up whale sounds much before that time. I was so intrigued by this whale, who doesn’t sing like any other and who has been doing it for decades with no response. I woke up in the middle of the night still thinking of him.

I’m not a person who wakes up early, but I gave up, got up, and started writing. It was an idea that wouldn’t let go. I knew I wanted to write about this whale, but then I started thinking who the main character would be. Who would be the kid who was compelled to find this whale? In thinking about Iris’s character, I thought about the many deaf kids who I’d worked with over the years, those who don’t have others they can communicate with in their school. Most of the people I’ve worked with have had others in their schools [to communicate with], but only maybe a handful of other deaf students. In rural settings, there are often schools who have only one deaf student or even a whole school district with only one deaf student. I wondered what it was like for that kid, who doesn’t have any other students who know their language. So, this kid would identify with this whale and want to go out and find him, to let him know someone does hear his song.

Iris is very close to her grandparents, who are also deaf. Why did you choose to portray Iris as born to hearing parents? Why choose to depict her grandparents as part of the Deaf community?

Most deaf kids are born into hearing families because most deafness is not hereditary. For about 90% of deaf people, they are the only deaf person their family knows. Hopefully their family will learn sign language, but it is surprising how often that does not happen. I wanted [Iris] to have hearing parents to show that, even at home, even though she can communicate, she still doesn’t quite connect with her family. But I didn’t want it to be too depressing. Without her deaf grandparents, it would be hard to show how rich American Sign Language is. Without that relationship and bond with her grandparents, I was afraid it would appear to readers that she must wish that she could hear because she has an awful life as a deaf person. But that isn’t the case with most deaf people; they don’t wish that they could hear. They want to communicate. To be heard and seen. I wanted to show that the relationship she has with her grandparents contrasts with her relationship with others with whom she cannot talk. The relationship with her grandparents, who are also deaf, is special because they have a language they can share with their own jokes and stories.

What steps did you take to ensure that you faithfully depicted the Deaf community and Iris’s experience specifically?

Having a career as an interpreter for so long and being familiar with the language made it easier to incorporate the language in a natural way. My work also informed my awareness of things that deaf people might experience, like the struggle to communicate.

Even though I have worked in the field for a long time and have been around many deaf people, it is not the same as living that experience. I wanted to make sure that people who have lived that experience read the book because I knew they would notice things I wouldn’t. It was interesting to see what each reader noticed; the things that one was okay with and the other was not. Of course, the deaf population is diverse as well. Both beta readers gave feedback that helped adjust scenes. My radio expert is also a deaf person, so that part of Iris’s character, being an electronics nerd and fixing radios that she can’t hear, actually came from this person, who I interpreted for and is now an engineer. When he was a kid, he was the 12-year-old fixing someone’s antique radio or TV. It doesn’t matter if you can’t hear it if you know what a circuit should look like. He doesn’t consider himself part of the Deaf community though, so he was my electronics expert, along with the two women who are members of the Deaf community who read for authenticity.

Both of your novels have featured special bonds with animals. Why are you drawn to writing stories that feature animals and our relationships with them?

I do love animals. I love the connections and similarities we share. Both Song for a Whale and Chained have characters with lives that parallel an animal’s. In Chained, they’re both captive. The elephant is literally chained and the keeper is figuratively chained. In Song for a Whale, even though Iris doesn’t spend her life with Blue 55, she feels a connection to him because they both have a language that others do not speak and do not connect to.

In many ways, animals are like us. I’m fascinated by animal communication; I wish we knew what they were saying. Especially animals with complex languages, like whale songs. The songs change every year. There are regional differences. One population might pick up different bits of songs from other populations. I want to know what that means. Is there a reason? Is it just something they enjoy?

What do you most hope your readers gain from Iris and Blue 55’s story?

I hope readers will feel less alone. I hope that they’ll reach out to someone who needs connection. And I hope they’ll gain a deeper understanding of our connection to the natural world and the importance of advocating for animals.

What does your writing process look like? You mentioned that the first chapter came late in the writing process?

I’m not naturally a plotter, but I have found that I need to do some planning so I don’t just drift off to nowhere. I’m bad about falling into research rabbit holes. When I wrote Chained, I didn’t know from one chapter to the next what would happen.

My writing process changes with every book. In some ways, it feels like I’m starting over every time. I’ve found really getting to know the character is important. Not so much her hair color or what’s in her closet, but what makes her sad? What is her relationship with her family? What is she afraid of? Getting to know the character’s backstory, even though it won’t make it into the book, matters. What’s happened to this character up to now will inform how she responds to challenges. Knowing the character helps with the plot. The plot is what’s going to happen in the book, but the real story is how is the character going to change? How is she going to react to what happens to her?

What brought you to writing for children?

The idea for Chained. That was the book that taught me to write. I’ve always been a reader, but I didn’t think about being a writer until I’d been teaching in a resource elementary school classroom. I had students who had reading levels from kindergarten to third grade, so my room was full of children’s literature. Because the students were all different reading levels, every day we worked on finding the right book for the right reader. I was in a good space to start writing because I’d been rediscovering some old favorites and discovering new classics, too. Then I heard an anecdote about elephants: if a young elephant is caught and tied up, it will struggle really hard to break free, but, when it gives up, it gives up forever. The metaphor is a reminder to not be like an elephant if you fail at something, but I kept thinking about how it’d be a great story. It really started there.

Believe it or not, I actually thought of it as a picture book at the time. One of my critique partners noticed that the space of a novel was needed to really tell the story. I’m really thankful for that advice. It took three years to write a draft that was presentable. I didn’t know that it was going to take that long, but that’s probably a good thing.

Are you interested in writing for other audiences, either older or younger?

I really do like the middle grade audience. I would love to have a picture book idea that works out some day. Possibly a young adult novel. But I think middle grade is when we discover the books that are going to be our favorites forever. Ages 10 to 12, we’re not independent yet, but we’re not little kids anymore. It can be an awkward age. We have enough independence to figure out who we’re going to be. To figure out how we’re going to respond to people and what kind of friend we’re going to be. We’re discovering more about the world and our place in it. It’s a fascinating age to write for.

What can you tell us about your next novel?

I’m not sure exactly what it’s going to be yet. Nothing is official yet, but I can narrow it down to primates!

Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly. Delacorte, $16.99 Feb. 5 ISBN 978-1-5247-7023-5