Crutcher, Chris. Whale Talk. Greenwillow Books, 2001. 220 pages. Tr. $15.34, ISBN: 978-0-688-18019-5
Plot: TJ Jones goes to Cutter High School, where sports rule so much that coaches and administrators look the other way when the top jock of the school bullies a developmentally disabled boy. T.J. “The Tao” Jones has a problem with this. Criminally neglected by a drug-addicted mom for two years, TJ finally found a home with his foster mother and father. But he lives in a place where being mixed-race (African-American, Japanese, and white) might pit you against the town's brutal jocks--who have a stranglehold on the school, the teachers, and the town itself.
To make things worse for him, natural-born athlete TJ has always refused to take part in any of school sports teams until his favorite teacher begs him to start a swim team. TJ agrees if he can assemble the team himself. He chooses a ragtag group of outcasts: Chris Coughlin, a natural swimmer who is developmentally disabled; and then there’s Dan, Tay-Roy, Andy, Jackie and Simon. All have challenges that slowly unfold over the course of the story. In a subplot that becomes pivotal to the story, TJ helps his therapist Georgia Brown with troubled children, and he meets Heidi, the victim of an abusive stepfather who is a central force in the town’s angry, macho, and racist world.
Critical Evaluation: Crutcher takes on a lot here, with a plot that includes complicated background stories, character histories, multiple (connected) plots, and two major conflicts. At times, it can dilute the power of the story, but it is generally saved by the main central force in the story, the voice of TJ. Angry, bitter, funny, and full of heart, TJ is a fantastic character who resonates long after the reading of his tale. Since Crutcher is a therapist, he knows how to capture a young man with baggage and serious anger problems. But he also knows how to capture the spirit of a caring young man with a lot of potential. He is one of the most memorable characters in young adult literature.
The multiple strands of the story and the multiple interesting characters make for deep, if at times confusing, reading. Chris Crutcher is extremely good at creating a novel that pivots on sports yet captures teens with serious problems. All of the young men in this book are complicated and worth knowing, the hostile environment feels real, and their battle is dramatic. Their cause is one worth rooting for and this book will appeal to kids longing for a problem novel with rich, realistic characters.
Reader’s Annotation: TJ is intelligent and athletic, but he has a lot against him. Multiracial in a mostly white town and full of anger, TJ gets his revenge on the powers that be by enlisting a group of misfits for the swim team.
Author bio: Born in the Midwest, Chris Crutcher majored in English and psychology, later becoming a teacher and the director of an Oakland alternative school. After leaving that position, he started working as a child and family psychologist focusing on abuse and neglect, but he had already penned his first book, Running Loose.
Crutcher specializes in writing about athletic boys dealing with tough situations. His books have won him many awards and places on notable best books lists. His most famous novels are Whale Talk and Staying Fat for Sarah Burns. Because his books are frequently challenged, he has become an outspoken advocate for free speech and he works to empower teens to fight back against censorship.
Genre: Realistic fiction.
Curriculum Ties: English
Focus on the racial aspect of the story.
Describe the humor of the “Bad News Bears”-style swim team.
Reading Level: 6th grade
Interest Age: 12+
Challenge Issues: Intense scenes involving abuse and racism.
Challenge Response: It is very important to know the content of this book, the way the characters are developed and the purpose of the intense situations. Crutcher’s main goal is to show that hurt people don’t have to hurt people, they can help people. The fact that Crutcher is a professional therapist should be included. The book received rave reviews, including a starred Horn Book review. ALA Notable Children’s Book 2002.
Why Included: I heard about this one in a bookstore book talk and was interested in its combination of sports and social issues.