Written By: Christopher Crutcher
Publication Information: Paperback edition, 2001, Random House Children’s Books
One Line: In a high school where athletes rule and bullying is rampant, TJ Jones brings together a group of misfits to form the school’s first swim team.
Brief Summary: TJ Jones (The Tao Jones) has always been a mix of things: adopted by two white parents he loves dearly, he is a mix of white, black, and Japanese in a town where racism is rampant, he’s struggled with anger problems but wants to do right by people, and he’s a superb athlete who refuses to play on any of his high school’s teams because he thinks it’s silly that jocks rule the school. However, in his senior year, two things happen. First, his favorite English teacher, Mr. Simet, asks for his help. Mr. Simet told the principal he would start a swim team to avoid coaching wrestling. TJ was a star age-group swimmer when he was younger, and Mr. Simet wants his help putting
Thoughts: Whale Talk is an excellent and entertaining book told from the perspective of what feels like a very authentic 17-year-old boy. He struggles with anger and with being different, but is, at the same time, strong, confident, and willing to take risks to help others. Unlike much young adult fiction, his parents are great role models, but also struggle with their own demons, so the book paints a nuanced picture of all human beings. The language – while rough at times – feels very real, and Crutcher does a great job with the characterizations, all of which are believable. Themes include the different ways people take risks and stand up for the underdog, how it’s important not to waste any time on anger and regret, the damage that can be done by racism, and the way little things have ripple effects on lives. The pacing is great, as the swim team plot is interwoven with an increasingly tense subplot involving a mixed-race little girl and the racism she faces from her stepfather. TJ and his entire family stick their necks out to help in this case, again highlighting the theme of the importance of helping other people, even if it is risky. The one thing somewhat off note is the dramatic ending, which feels rushed and tacked on, and is therefore not as emotional as it could be. It feels a bit like Crutcher wanted to highlight some of his themes about the dangers of racism so much that he made a choice that felt like it might belong in another book. That being said, this is a great book about a sport that doesn’t get enough attention in popular culture, features an engaging, bright, and funny narrator, and will appeal to many different teens.
Author Information: From www.chriscrutcher.com: “Chris Crutcher was raised in Cascade, Idaho, a lumber and cattle ranch town located in the central Idaho Rockies, a two hour drive over treacherous two-lane from the nearest movie theater and a good forty minutes from the nearest bowling alley. In high school he played football, basketball and ran track, not because he was a stellar athlete, but because in a place so isolated, every able bodied male was heavily recruited. “If you didn’t show up on the first day of football practice your freshman year,” he says, “they just came to your house and got you. And your parents let them in.”
His early interest in stories came principally from reading Jean Shepherd and other fine authors in the Playboy Magazine delivered monthly to his house because, as he overheard his father saying to his mother, “Some of the very finest contemporary American literature graces the pages of that magazine.” Full disclosure, there is justified suspicion that he may have perused some of the photography before settling down to serious reading.
Crutcher’s years as teacher, then director, of a K-12 alternative school in Oakland, California through the nineteen-seventies, and his subsequent twenty-odd years as a therapist specializing in child abuse and neglect, inform his thirteen novels and two collections of short stories. “I have forever been intrigued by the extremes of the human condition,” he says, “the remarkable juxtaposition of the ghastly and the glorious. As Eric ‘Moby’ Calhoun tells us at the conclusion of Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, ‘Ain’t it a trip where heroes come from’.”
He has also written what he calls an ill-advised autobiography titled King of the Mild Frontier, which was designated by “Publisher’s Weekly” as “the YA book most adults would have read if they knew it existed.”
Chris has received a number of coveted awards, from his high school designation as “Most Likely to Plagiarize” to the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award. His favorites are his two Intellectual Freedom awards, one from the National Council for Teachers of English and the other from the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Five of Crutcher’s books appeared on an American Library Association list of the 100 Best Books for Teens of the Twentieth Century (1999 to 2000). A recent NPR list of the Best 100 YA and Children’s books included none of those titles. Time flies.
Crutcher no longer listens to, nor contributes to, NPR.”