Words cannot express what an amazing novel this is. Chris Crutcher has built a writing career out of being a controversial presence in YA literature, but when you look past the convenience and ease of calling him controversial, you see a sensitive artist who cares about getting the story right. His experience as a family counselor gives him the authority to write the way he does. When people complain about him being too hard-hitting, I consider that an insult to all of the kids and families he's had to work with whose lives mirror what characters in his novels are going through.
Whale Talk is a novel about a misfit group of boys who start a swim team at their high school and all of the prejudice - individual and collective - that they experience from the adults and students at their school due to their "lack of respect" for the Cutter High School name. You see, sports at Cutter is an institution. Earning a varsity letter is like earning your stripes. Many people feel that TJ Jones and his group of misfit boys are making a mockery of what it means to earn a varsity letter.
But this book is about so much more than varsity sports. It's about friendship, racism, family issues, abandonment, setting goals and achieving them, the list goes on.
I honestly don't care how controversial Chris Crutcher is. There is so much more that is teachable and relatable in this novel than there is controversial material. Yes, he uses strong language, but he's doing it to be authentic, not just to ruffle feathers.
One particular passage in the book that didn't even take up a quarter of the page was so powerful and so heartbreaking that it moved me to tears:
"Over and over I tell you, racism is --"
"Ignorance," I say back.
The sound of running water brings our attention to Heidi in the kitchen, squeezing dish soap into the filling basin. She pulls herself up onto the lip, stretching to snag a bristle brush, then begins scrubbing her arms. Georgia sighs, closes her eyes, whispers, "She thinks if she can wash it off, her daddy will love her." (69)
Ironically enough, the fact that racism is such a huge issue in this book makes it even more outrageous that the first cover of Whale Talk prominently features a white high school-aged boy when the main character is frequently targeted by people in his school for being black (he's actually black, Japanese, and white, but the hard-core racism he experiences is due to his blackness). Pardon my language, but what the hell kind of marketing strategy was that? Here we have a book that so clearly focuses on the ignorance and heartbreak of racism and you're going to feature a white kid on the cover when the main character in the story is so obviously NOT? At least they attempted to make up for this ignorance with the second cover, but still. In my opinion, the damage was clearly done.
Whale Talk was first published in 2001 and even though it's ten years old, I highly encourage you to pick this book up in the near future. I know many of us want to pick up the shiny new books with the enchanting, sparkly covers, but this book has such heart and will never date itself. The struggles and issues that the characters in this novel go through stand the test of time and it feels just as current in 2011 as it did ten years ago.
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
First Published: April 2001 by Greenwillow
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Young Adult
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