Willa and the Whale

Shadow Mountain. Mar. 2020. 256p. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781629727318.
Gr 5-8–A tale of grief, mourning, and the power of community to restore one’s emotional balance after a tragedy. As Willa’s parents navigate a divorce, her mother is offered a professional opportunity to move to Tokyo. Willa is forced to choose between Tupkuk Island and Japan. Sharing her mother’s intense love of the ocean and all things related to her career in marine biology, Willa chooses to move and experience a new culture. When Willa’s mother unexpectedly dies from a fatal heart condition, Willa finds herself alone and must return to the island. She quickly realizes everything has changed, from the distance she feels between herself and her former friend, Marc, to the intensity of her once calm home. Family life in her old house now consists of a stepmother with three noisy young stepsiblings and one half sibling. On a whale-watching trip with her father, Willa discovers she can talk to a whale named Meg. Over the course of the book, this magical encounter becomes an extended metaphor for the guidance she still needs from her mother, and a manifestation of an emotional goodbye that she is still negotiating. Each chapter opens with fascinating facts on unique marine life that create nonfiction entry points for research. Subplots surrounding Marc’s family life, a competitive peer named Lizzy, a beached blue whale, and Willa’s unfolding relationship with her father after a three-year absence easily move the plot forward.
VERDICT Willa’s character offers emotional insight into the layers of grief experienced by someone who loses a parent, and builds empathy in young readers. This must-purchase may challenge readers to keep a dry eye.

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