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Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Iris is having a tough year.  The only Deaf kid in her school, the only person she really has to talk to during the day is her interpreter, Mr. Charles, despite her classmate Nina’s extra-annoying attempts to show off her fake sign language (and her teacher’s even more annoying refusal to acknowledge that Nina is a faker).  Iris really wants to go to Bridgewood, a school with a big Deaf education program across town, but her parents don’t seem to understand why she would want to be with other kids like her.  And, to make everything worse, her grandpa recently passed away, and Iris misses him like crazy – but her grandma misses him even more.  Lately, it seems like Grandma is sad and lonely all the time – kind of like how Iris feels about school, but worse.  And, to top it all off, after a lunch time disaster with Nina, now Iris is grounded from her beloved antique radio repair business.

So, when Iris learns about Blue 55 in science class, she knows she has to figure out a way to help him.  A hybrid blue and fin whale, Blue 55 sings at a different, completely unique frequency than the other whales in the ocean, which means no one can understand him – no matter how often, or how loud, he sings his song, the other whales can’t send it back to him.  After she reads a blog post about a failed attempt to attach a tracker to Blue 55 by a nature sanctuary in Alaska, Iris starts to talk with one of the scientists working to track the lonely whale.  With her knowledge of frequencies, radios, computers, and a little help from her school’s music class, she designs a song for Blue 55 to let him know he’s not alone in the ocean.  Iris knows she has to play it for him – but how can one twelve-year-old girl get herself, and her song, from Texas to Alaska, especially during the school year?

With a little ingenuity, a lot of determination, and one wily grandma, Iris sets out on a journey to show a whale he’s not alone in the dark – and, along the way, she discovers that she might not be so alone either.

Based on a real whale, 52 Blue, Song for a Whale is a gem of a novel.  Fierce, smart, and very stubborn Iris is still trying to figure out how to navigate her world and communicate with a world that often seems to be vibrating on a very different frequency than she is.  With her good friend Wendell, loyal big brother Tristan, and sign language karaoke queen grandma by her side, though, she’s a force to be reckoned with.  With tons of science (and whales!), this story about family, friendship, and finding your place in the world is sure to strike a chord with tech and animal lovers alike.  Check it out!

The Line Tender by Kate Allen

Things haven’t really been the same for Lucy Everhart and her dad since her mom died five years ago.  A renowned biologist, Lucy’s mom was on a boat tracking great white sharks off the north Atlantic coast when she died.  Lucy’s dad is a police detective in their small coastal Massachusetts town and a rescue diver who works all up and down the coast, which means he isn’t home too much, but her neighbors are always there – old Mr. Patterson on one side, hanging out on his porch listening to his police scanner, and the Kellys on the other, including Fred Kelly, Lucy’s best friend, and his two sisters.  Mrs. Kelly took care of Lucy after her mom died, when things were really bad, and Lucy feels almost like part of the Kelly family.

It’s summer, and Lucy and Fred are hard at work on their summer project, a field guide to Cape Ann wildlife (Fred writes the descriptions, while Lucy illustrates), when local fisherman Sookie catches a great white in one of his nets and hauls it to shore.  The two head to the dock to get a good look at the shark, and that night, while trying to get the illustrations right, Lucy catches some old footage on the news of her mom talking about great whites moving into the north Atlantic.  Footage she’s never seen before – which sets her down a path of discovery about her mom’s work with sharks, Fred by her side.  As the two dive deep into shark research, Lucy starts to feel like she’s getting to know her mom the biologist, not just her mom the mom.

But when another tragedy rips a new hole in Lucy’s heart, this time with serrated edges, she has to fight hard to hold on.  Her mom’s research feels like a life line, and finding answers her mom didn’t get a chance to investigate feels like a way for Lucy to keep swimming, even in the dark waters of grief.  With the field guide and her pencils in hand, her mom’s unanswered questions forming the path ahead, and help from more than a few unexpected places, Lucy slowly begins to find her way forward.

Shark Week is still a month away, but you can get a jump start with this fabulous debut novel by Minnesota author Kate Allen!  The Line Tender is an exploration of family, friendship, love, loss, and chock full of the science of sharks.  A great summer read (although maaaybe not for a trip to an ocean…), there are tons of shark and other marine biology facts in this novel that were super fascinating, and Lucy’s shark illustrations fill the space between each chapter.  With a mystery or two, quirky neighbors, good friends, a road trip, and lots of sharks, this is definitely one to add to your summer stack!

Merci Suárez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

So far, sixth grade is turning out to be not such a great year for Merci.  A scholarship student at Seaward Pines Academy in Florida, she didn’t go on any fancy vacations over the summer like her classmates, instead hanging out at the beach with her family, practicing her soccer moves, and baby-sitting her wild twin cousins.  Bossy queen bee Edna is her same old self – using her weird ability to make everyone follow her lead to leave Merci behind.  None of the girls wants to play soccer anymore – too sweaty, and their hair might get messed up.  And Miss McDaniels in the office has signed Merci up for the Sunshine Buddies, a program for new kids at school to have someone to help them get settled – and paired her with a boy.  From Minnesota.  Who is as tall as a moose and pale as a vampire.  Even worse?  All of Edna’s opinions about Merci’s Sunshine Buddy.

On top of all of that school stuff, Lolo, Merci’s grandpa, who she can always count on to understand about things and help her feel better about being herself, is acting strangely – forgetting stuff, mixing up the twins, getting lost, and even falling off his bike on their weekly trip to her aunt’s bakery for Sunday dinner bread and cookies.  Merci is worried, but no one will tell her what’s going on.

At least she still has soccer games with Papi, and tryouts for the school team coming up, plus helping Papi and Lolo out with paint jobs on the weekend for their family business.  And she’s in Ms. Tannenbaum’s class this year, which means building an Egyptian tomb in the classroom, including a mummy.  But as stuff with Lolo gets more confusing – and scary – and Edna ramps up her anti-Merci agenda, sixth grade goes from bad to worse.  How is one kid supposed to deal with all this change she never even asked for in the first place?

I absolutely loved this year’s Newbery winner!  Merci Suárez Changes Gears is that fabulous middle grade novel that perfectly captures a year in transition.  Change is always hard, whether we choose it or not, and I loved cheering for Merci and her family as she starts to figure herself out.  With a marvelous sense of place, family worries, celebrations, fights, and plenty of love, and all the trials and rewards of beginning to discover who your true self and your true friends are, this is one I’d recommend for kid and adult readers alike.  Meg Medina has also written some stellar, award-winning, and super powerful YA fiction, so I’m happy to see she’s just as much of a powerhouse in the middle grade field.  Don’t miss this book, especially now that it has a shiny gold medal on the cover!