WILLA AND THE WHALE, by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown, Shadow Mountain, March 3, 2020, Hardcover, $16.99 (ages 8-12)
How do you cope with the loss of a parent? Willa and the Whale, by Chad Morris and Shelly Brown, explores grief and the healing power of hope.
When Willa’s parents get a divorce, she’s forced to choose which one to live with. In the end, Willa decides to move to Tokyo with her marine biologist mom. Three years later, Willa’s mom dies, and Willa finds herself back on Tupkuk Island off the coast of Washington State where she grew up — back in the house her parents used to share. Only now there’s a stepmom, three stepsiblings and a half-sister.
It’s a lot to take in. Willa’s struggling, and her dad knows it. In hopes of trying to cheer her up, Willa’s dad takes her whale watching. Then something amazing happens. While all the passengers on the other side of the boat, Willa spots a humpback. She feels an immediate connection. On a whim, Willa starts talking to the whale, and to her surprise, the whale talks back.
Willa knows no one will believe a whale can really talk to her, so she keeps it a secret. She names the whale Meg and slips down to the shore often to confide in her new friend. With Meg’s help, Willa begins to make sense of her life and the human friends she’s beginning to make.
Willa and the Whale is the second Shadow Mountain book for middle graders released this year that deals with loss and grief. The other being the excellent The Wish and the Peacock. Despite similar underlying themes, they both stand well on their own.
Chad Morris and Shelley Brown (Squint and Mustaches for Maddie) are a husband-wife duo that are known for tackling big issues with heart. Willa and the Whale is a fine addition to their canon. Of particular note is their ability to convey the enormity of grief — the ocean — while pairing it with something that is equally enormous — hope.
Willa is a character with such heart. As are the supporting characters, especially her friend Marc. The dynamic between the two is not only special but rings true. It’s pure friendship unmarred by the boy-girl “love” dynamic that is quickly creeping into the middle-grade genre.
Willa and the Whale is a lovely read that feels fresh and familiar at the same time. Tight editing and a pure voice make this a book that should definitely be on you shelves.
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