Rummanah Aasi
  Author Chris Crutcher is not immune to challenges. In fact he is one of the authors listed that have been frequently challenged according to ALA. I only read a few books by the author including Deadline which was on the Abraham Lincoln list in Illinois. I just finished one of his well known book called Whale Talk.

Description: T.J. Jones is a multiracial, adopted teen, who shuns organized sports and the fervent athletes at his high school until he agrees to form a swimming team and recruits some of the school's less popular students when he is asked for assistance by his English teacher.

Review: All of Chris Crutcher books, at least the ones I have read so far, have a sports foundation that also incorporates important issues. Whale Talk has all of the author's trademarks. Adopted, biracial high-school senior The Tao Jones (his birth mother named him after a philosophy and prefers to be just called T.J.) is well-adjusted on the surface. T.J. is a smart, likable kid with a great sense of humor and athletic ability. He is your model student who effortlessly glides through school with decent grades and for the most part active in the social scene. Unlike many males in his high school, T. J. doesn't need competitive sports to create his identity. Though Cutter High School jocks and coaches see he is wasting his athletic potential and go far as calling him a traitor and other insults for not having enough school spirit.  T. J. backtracks his promise of not joining a sport when English teacher-coach Mr. Simet makes an unconventional offer: Be the anchor of the swim team and pick your teammates.  The offer is perfect, especially since racist football bully Mike Barbour has taken up letter jackets as a cause. It seems developmentally disabled Chris Coughlin has been wearing his dead brother's jacket, and Mike is annoyed. If Chris, naturally comfortable in the water, is on the swim team, T. J. reasons, Chris will earn a jacket of his own, and Mike will be put in his place.
  Whale Talk is more than your average sports book as the author also includes several side plots in his story such as T.J.'s father atoning for a past tragedy, T.J.'s therapist treating the biracial and severely abused daughter of Cutter's biggest athletic booster, and the misfit team members T.J. has assembled have their own personal problems. While this may be over the top, Crutcher handles these several topics well with honesty, humor, and wonderful insight. The characters are well-constructed characters and quick pacing add tension to how the sometimes cruel and abusive circumstances of life affect every link in the human chain. There is a heartwrenching series of plot twists leads to an end that I wasn't ready to deal with but shows that goodness at least partially prevails.
 While most people may be alarmed at the language used in this book, they are overlooking the great themes presented in the story: overcoming obstacles and adversity, everyday acts of racism, and most importantly forgiveness. If there is anything that bothers me about this book, it is the book cover which features a white male on the cover running. The cover does not reflect anything about the book or the characters at all.  Firstly, T.J. is mixed race and that is a huge part of his identity and main focus for the story. Secondly, the sport is not running but swimming. I'm alarmed at how this blatantly wrong cover could be placed on this book. It is another example of whitewashing covers of books that feature a character of color. I actually had to do a double-take when I retrieved Whale Talk from the library's bookshelf. I had thought I had made a mistake and picked up a different book. I even had to reread the inside panel to make sure it was the story. 

Rating: 4 stars

Why it was challenged/banned: Whale Talk has been challenged several time and even has been banned. Here is a look at the book's controversy: In 2005 and 2006, Whale Talk was removed from all five Limestone County (AL) high school libraries because of the book's use of profanity. It was also removed from suggested reading list for a pilot English-literature curriculum by the superintendent of the SC Board of Education. At this time, the book was also challenged at the Grand Ledge (MI) High School. In 2007 and 2008, Whale Talk was challenged at the Missouri Valley (IA) High School because the book uses racial slurs and profanity as well as challenged as an optional reading in a bullying unit at the Lake Oswego (OR) Junior High School because the novel is "peppered with profanities, ranging from derogatory slang terms to sexual encounters and violence." Source: Marshall Library

Words of Caution: Whale Talk does contain strong language, primarily with the use of the "n" word. The offensive language is not just thrown into the novel just for the sake of controversy, but rather it serves as a reason to make us uncomfortable. It is alarming how easily the word is used by the characters, but it also serves us as a reminder of how prominent it is used in our culture. Why don't we talk about racism and prejudice in a though provoking novel such as this instead of taking the easy and well stupid way out of removing it out of the discussion because it makes us comfortable? Chris Crutcher responded by to his banners and challengers. If you're curious, you can read his response here. In regards to sexual situations, there is allusion to some of the characters who have experience sexual abuse in their childhood. There is nothing explicit or graphic in the book. I think this book is suitable for Grades 8 and up.

Curriculum Connection: Teachers interested in using Whale Talk in their classrooms should take a look at this great lesson plan starter by CCHS. The ALA and AASL (American Association of School Libraries) have also created a discussion guide for teachers to use.

If you like his book try: Black and White by Paul Volponi or Response by Paul Volponi
8 Responses
  1. I haven't read Whale Talk. I read Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes last year and really liked it. I did feel that some of the controversial issues were just thrown in as part of a class the character was taken. I prefer when it's worked into the plot better.


  2. Jenny Says:

    "There is a heartwrenching series of plot twists leads to an end that I wasn't ready to deal with but shows that goodness at least partially prevails."

    That sounds intense. I love intense reads with lots of twists and turns and emotional turmoil. I agree with you on the cover go, if the sport is swimming why on earth is the guy running?


  3. Missie Says:

    Hmmm... The link to Cruther's response took me to the blogger website.

    No worries. I'll google it.

    Very interesting feedback, Rummanah. I'm not sure how to feel about the 'n' word being used as a reason to make you feel uncomfortable.

    I think when you are surrounded by your own race and hear words that refer to your race it doesn't seem as alarming. I don't really allow derogatory Mexican/Hispanic terms to bother me, but that is because in the area I live, Hispanics are the majority.


  4. Alison: Despite the many side plots, I thought he incorporated them well. I had the same issue with "Deadline" where I thought he just jumbled a lot of issues together.

    Jenny: Right? The cover makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

    Missie: I'm not promoting to use offensive language nor am I condoning offensive language but I can understand why he used it. It's really how some people talk and when you are writing realistic fiction you need to portray reality and unfortunately in some areas of our country, the word and sentiment are used frequently.


  5. I think Whale Talk is a wonderful book as are all the Chris Crutcher books I've read. He really creates believable male characters who have bad junk to deal with but find friends and supportive adults to help them through it all


  6. Helen: I agree. I think the camaraderie and Crutcher's own experience working as a therapist shines through his work.


  7. This sounds like a great book (I've not heard of it before) and it makes me want to bang my head against a table when people miss the message. When, as you say is the case with WHALE TALK, derogatory terms are used as evidence or examples of a problem it's serving a purpose, not trying to be controversial.

    It's also ironic that WHALE TALK has a whitewashed cover considering it's content.

    This was a great review, I'll be looking for this book.


  8. Anne Bennett Says:

    I was just thinking that I wanted to contact Chris Crutcher to encourage him to update his covers. I honestly think they are a deterrent for kids who don't seem to want to check out his books. Whale Talk was my fist Crutcher and I was reading it at the time that I met the author. He is just like you'd expect from his books. I really enjoyed meeting him.


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