Double Feature: Whale-whisperers

Two more for the End-of-the-World challenge:  Hester Velmans’ Isabel of the Whales and Welwyn Wilton Katz’s Whalesinger.

Hester Velmans.  Isabel of the Whales.  New York:  Scholastic, 2005.  181 pages.

Isabel is out-of-her-mind psyched for her school’s annual fifth-grade whale watch.  Her friends tease her about her whale “fetish” — her room is filled with stuffed animals and figurines, and she even does her year-end report on Moby Dick (from the point of view of the title character).

On the day of the trip, her dream is over-fulfilled; so many whales, from different species, gather around the boat that the officials are stunned.  And then things get really surreal.  As some of the whales start bumping the boat, Isabel gets thrown overboard and literally becomes one of them!  They tell her she’s a mermaid, their term for a human who can shape-shift into a whale, and she has a mission to help the whale community in some way even they don’t yet know.

What I liked:

  • The opening line:  “Call me Isabel.”  It’s cute.
  • That Isabel is a Chosen One, not the Chosen One.  There have been others (some of whom you might have heard of… ;)) — Isabel isn’t the cliché ultimate prophesied Kid Who Will Save The World.
  • Some of the whales’ names, like Indigoneah and Momboduno.  The latter sounds so deep and booming, like a drum; it seems perfect for a whale.
  • The part about unicorns.  No, I’m serious.

What I didn’t:

  • The gratuitous romance.  Of course Isabel-the-whale has to develop a crush on the first guy who gets snarky with her.  It doesn’t even concern her that a male humpback at that age doesn’t typically just date female humpbacks his age.  I mean…you know…when a boy whale and a girl whale like each other, and the boy whale has successfully fought off another boy whale…  Even when Isabel’s mentor sort-of points out why Isabel can’t date any of the guys, it seems like the whole female-whales-my-age-are-having-babies-soon thing goes right through her ears without stopping at the brain.  She’s really just upset because she’s not allowed to date the guy she likes.
  • Oh, and how is it that a girl who’s been obsessed with whales for years, and has “read up about them,”[1] and writes school reports on them, doesn’t know why those boy whales are suddenly fighting each other?  What possible reason could they have for doing that, hmm?
  • How often Isabel-as-narrator says, “To tell you the truth.”  It’s an overused and unnecessary phrase in general.
  • Some of the whales’ names, like Trog and Drabtail.  Didn’t Isabel’s mentor say that whale names need a certain rhythm, that short names like “Molly” or “Kristen” weren’t enough?  I guess “Drabtail” is a nickname?


It’s an ok story.  It’s refreshing that Isabel isn’t portrayed as a cookie-cutter Chosen Kid.  She’s not the first of her kind, and she may not be the last.  And I did really like the story’s concept of mer-people (there’s even a bit at the beginning that briefly alludes to selkies!).

The romance angle, on the other hand, was eye-rollingly predictable — you could easily think of the guy as just another cocky high-school kid from [insert teen movie title].  Isabel even describes him, near the beginning, looking at her with “a smirk, a cheeky ‘I’ve got your number’ look.”[2]  By the way, how can she tell when a whale is smirking?  Do whales even have that concept?

A sequel was published last fall, called Jessaloup’s Song.  You can read an excerpt at Hester Velmans’ website – it does sound pretty cool.

Welwyn Wilton Katz.  Whalesinger.  New York:  Laurel-Leaf/Dell, 1990.  212 pages.

No one told Nick Young that his work as a research assistant in California’s Point Reyes National Seashore would bring him face-to-face with the man he blames for his brother’s death.  Only on his first day of work does he learn that the erosion study is being funded by Dr. Ray Pembroke and the Conservocean Foundation.  And then, he starts to notice that something isn’t right about the project – Dr. Pembroke is hiding something, some other motive for studying the Point Reyes coast.

Marty Griffiths is travelling to Point Reyes as a babysitter for the Niven children, whose parents are also participating in the Conservocean project.  She’s trying not to think of all the pressure she’s escaping back home, the decisions she doesn’t want to make.  Should she go back to a school where, because of her reading disability, no amount of hard work has gotten her above a fifty percent?  Or, now that she’s sixteen, should she quit?  And then something does take her mind from it all, something so surreal.  She hears a whalesong in the bay, and it’s talking directly to her.

A mother grey whale and her calf come to rest in Drake’s Bay, off the Point Reyes coast, while the rest of their People migrate farther north.  This bay has a special meaning for the whales, and now the mother senses something dangerous is going to happen here…something that has happened before.  If history is planning to repeat itself, what part will the whales play this time?

What I liked:

  • The plot structure was very well built, though you only fully realize it in retrospect.  The major conflict seemed more concrete than in Isabel of the Whales – in Velmans’ story, all you know is that Isabel is supposed to help the whales somehow.  In Katz’s story, the main mystery is more specific.  You know there’s something going on with Dr. Pembroke and the research project, and you know Nick is going to find out what it is.
  • Also in terms of the plot structure, I loved how strongly Nick’s mystery intersected with Marty’s story, and with the whales.  Again, it’s one of those things you only understand fully when you’ve reached the end.
  • The strong characterization, especially in the relationship between Nick and Marty.  There were times when Nick’s attitude leaned toward chauvinism and overprotectiveness, and I would start to hate him, but then suddenly he’d realize what he was doing and struggle with himself.  He was neither a stock jerk, nor a stock Good Guy; he was a human being with flaws that he tried to fix.
  • The characterization of the whales, which was much more mystical and their language more poetic than that in Isabel.

What I didn’t:

  • One scene in the Nick/Marty relationship that felt really gratuitous.
  • Although I liked the whales’ characterization better overall in Whalesinger than in Isabel, there was a point where the mystical-ness of their language started to get on my nerves, especially nearing the story’s climax.  I kept thinking, What the heck are you talking about?!  I just want to know what’s going on!  But then, maybe I was reading too fast, trying to power through to the end.  When I skim through those scenes again, they make a little more sense now that I know what happens later.
  • The whales can understand English.  Any time the mother hears a human conversation, it comes not just as sounds, but as specific words.  Why is that?  I can buy that she recognizes tones, emotions, etc.  But the actual words and their meanings?  That’s something that needs to be explained, and the book doesn’t.


I have mixed feelings about Whalesinger.  I know I like it – it feels more sophisticated than Isabel of the Whales.  It’s the kind of book that haunts me for days afterward (I should post a list of those sometime…)  But it’s not an OMG-this-is-the-most-amazing-book-I’ve-ever-read-EVER feeling.  There were a few moments I hated at first, but then they resolved themselves and I didn’t hate them so much in retrospect.

[1] Isabel of the Whales, pg 8

[2] Isabel, pg 34

One comment

  1. […] Of course I thought this would be right up my alley.  I first encountered this story as a one-act play years ago, and it was cool seeing it fleshed out into novel form.  The story is about Ellen/Elin Jean, the thirteen/sixteen-year-old daughter of a selkie and a human crofter who lives in the Orkney Islands (in the novel it’s narrowed down to Shapinsay Island), who doesn’t know why she was born with webbed hands that the other island youth make fun of constantly.  In the book, her father is much crueler and angrier about this condition, and barely lets Elin Jean leave the house, whereas in the play he’s the one who wants her to dance at the Midsummer festival with him in front of their whole town.  But that night she finds something that changes everything, and takes off on a journey to discover her heritage and her destiny (the novel turns this into a Chosen One story, similar to Isabel of the Whales). […]

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