Title: Willa and the Whale
Author: Chad Morris and Shelly Brown
Published: March 2020
Publisher: Shadow Mountain
Readership: Middle Grade
Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism
I received a copy of Willa and the Whale from Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
When her marine biologist mother dies, thirteen-year-old Willa turns to an unlikely source of comfort—a humpback whale who communicates with her.
Willa and the Whale is a poignant story about caring and loss and the deep connections that make us human.
As a fan of middle grade books, and anything to do with whales in general, I have to admit that when I requested Willa and the Whale to read it was purely a cover-love request, but I’m pleased to say that this was a surprisingly poignant read.
Thirteen-year old Willa has spent the last few years living with her marine biologist mother in Japan, but when her mother dies unexpectedly, she returns to the United States to live with her father and step-family in her old hometown. Willa, like her mother, has a passion for marine life, and on a whale-watching trip, meets Meg, a humpback whale who can inexplicably communicate with her. In Meg, Willa finds a confidant, as well as a source of wisdom and comfort as she deals with the deep loss she feels, but doesn’t know how to cope with.
Willa and the Whale is unexpectedly powerful in the whale it depicts a young teen dealing with her grief. Feeling isolated from the new family she doesn’t know yet, Willa struggles to connect and communicate with everyone, including her dad. She clings to things she knows – an old friend, Marc, and her passion for marine biology and learning. At times, this frustrates her as she finds herself in competition for top of her class with another girl, fighting for a position on the local swim team and trying to manage her feelings on her own.
While the magical realism element of the whale being able to communicate with Willa over large distances is a little out there, as we begin to get to know Willa it becomes just part of the story and the tales that Meg shares with Willa help to ease some of the grief the young teen feels and to put everything into perspective.
It was nice to see Willa’s growth over the course of the novel, as she moves from seeing her new family as being separate from her, to being a group of people she might like to get to know better. It takes a tragic event in the last third of the book to get her to this point, but from that, she begins to realise that it’s okay to need other people and to lean on them for support.
This will be a very important book for middle graders who struggle with grief and loss.