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*Isabel of the Whales* by Hester Velmans- young readers fantasy book review

Isabel of the Whales
by Hester Velmans
Grades 4-6 192 pages Yearling July 2006 Paperback    

This tale by Hester Velmans begins like many others of its kind: with a young and spunky heroine wishing to be more, to be special. Isabel of the Whales showcases the story of an eleven-year-old girl in Massachusetts who gets a little more than she bargained for during a routine yearly field trip for whale watching.

Isabel falls from the boat during the trip and finds herself able to hear and understand the speech of the huge creatures she has always been fascinated by. Gradually, she comes to understand that she has been chosen to not only teach them about humans but to learn about the whales and their way of life. To do this, she has become a whale herself! She is welcomed lovingly into a pod who will become her “family” under the sea.

From swimming and diving lessons as a new whale to too much food and not enough food to the terrors of fishing nets and sea storms, young Isabel gets a crash course from older, more patient whales. The details of her discovery – ocean-bed shells, fish, deep-sea landscaping - are dead on, written with true understanding of preteen excitement and enthusiasm.

It is very informational, teaching about marine life and the science of their communications. The differences and many, many similarities between the playful and social pod whales and our own human families are explored in depth as Isabel struggles to find her place. Loyalties and love are put to the test in her young heart.

The storytelling voice is conversational; as the target audience is nine to twelve-year-olds, it reads as dumbed-down more than a little. That, however, isn’t enough of a distraction to keep the reader from vicariously feeling bittersweet sorrow, fear or joy with the girl-turned-whale. Hester Velmans explores the typical confusion that any girl this age might feel with compassion.

The cover art is beautiful, drawing potential readers in to explore the aquatic world it hints at. There is a brief afterword with facts about whales for readers who may have developed an interest beyond the Isabel’s fictional adventure. They may (hopefully) come away enlightened and concerned for the increasingly difficult plight of sea creatures. It is an excellent early introduction to common ecological concerns.

Elements of the tale are endearing, and taken as a whole, Isabel of the Whales is a lovely, evocative story. At slightly less than 200 pages, it is the perfect size for young hands: not so long as to grow boring, but just right for delivering a message while entertaining.

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  Carolynn Evans/2007 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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