A friend of mine loves this book and whilst I’m not entirely sold on parts of it, I can see why it’s in her top 10 9-12 reads.
Kara’s having a rough time. Her mother is missing, her father is selling their beloved boat to a boy she can’t stand and to top it off, local fishing boss Dougie Evans’ money-making business plans threaten the reef Kara loves. When an injured dolphin calf washes up on the shore though, Kara finds new hope but can she make her voice heard?
Animal books are not usually my cup of tea. Nothing against them, just not my utmost favourite thing in the world to read about. However, this book is about more than just a dolphin. There’s more than a hint of Michael Morpurgo about the book too, and while it’s easy to say that just because it features an animal, there is a flavour of his writing style too. There’s a fair bit of information about dolphin and sealife preservation too which is kind of interesting (and Morpurgo-esque) and to be honest I would have liked a lot more of it.
What I remember most about it though are the vivid descriptions of this little English seaside fishing town and the reef it hides. I could almost taste the saltspray as I read and it made me long to go down to the coast and get blown about on a clifftop for a bit, hair streaming and eyes tearing up with the wind. It does remind me more than a little of the Ingo series by Helen Dunmore, with those same realistic almost-taste-it descriptions of the sea and the beauties, dangers and history of them. Ironically, in White Dophin the real star therefore isn’t actually the dolphin but the reef! A scene with a cuttlefish is the best example I can use, with the author painting a picture of the huge variety of truly bizarre life living in English waters – with things like that about, the dolphin seems kind of dull by comparison!
Another thing I liked is that this book features a character with a physical disability. Felix (the boy buying the boat) has Cerebal Palsy and the author writes this in with aplomb. It’s neither the defining characteristic of Felix nor is it glossed over – when he’s horribly mean to Kara’s sister for standing up for him against bullies, Kara’s remark is that his Cerebal Palsy ‘doesn’t stop him being rude’. It’s not an excuse, instead it actually becomes a real positive since he takes to sailing and decides to train to be a paralympic sailor. There’s been a real drive on recently to feature more children with disabilities in kids books (I know I know, kind of hard for you to miss it, preaching to the choir!) and I think Felix is a brilliant example of it being done right – he has a disability (like many children do) but there’s more to him than that and whilst it does have a role in the story, it’s not a big or defining one. In fact, his Cerebal Palsy almost has no more impact on the story than a kid whose difference was being left-handed – it makes him different and he has to do something a different way, but that’s it. Now that for me is disabilty in kids lit done right.
There was only one disappointment for me in this book and that is that I didn’t warm to many of the characters. I loved Felix, who grew from a sullen sulky boy into someone who’d found something in himself, but Kara the heroine seemd to get stuck and not get far beyond how hard done by she feels. Don’t get me wrong, she’s completely justified and it wasn’t like she was a sulky brat, but when you see the other adults struggling to get on with things with the same troubles she has it makes her difficult to sympathise with, especially when she does such reckless things like swimming on her own at night in the sea and worrying her family witless.
All in all though, this is definitely worth a second look. Fans of Morpurgo will enjoy the animal focus of the story but with characters like Felix there’s more to it than just a dolphin. Like I said, I could almost taste the seasalt as I read it and I’ve got such a hankering for a windswept cliff right now that I know I’ll be recommending this book to any teachers looking for descriptive books or books with a focus on setting. Well worth a read and a place on the bookshelf.
Find White Dolphin here.