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Whale Talk
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful
A good book rises above its own premise. Reading a short synopsis of this story without knowing anything about it beyond its plot could easily suggest to the average viewer that it's going to be awful. Think about it. A multi-racial protagonist and his motley crew of rag tag misfits puts together an unlikely swim team and everybody learns a little bit about what it's like to walk in another person's shoes. Bleaugh! That's the kind of After School Special plotting that can get a book seriously ignored by its intended audience. Now I had never read a Chris Crutcher book coming into this. Frankly, I know the man has a reputation for producing darned good books. Then I read "Whale Talk" and found, to my incredible relief, that this was not really a book about a swim team. It's about the circle of abuse and the amount of control an individual has over his or her own actions. It's about hurting other people and what the cost of that can be. In short, the book takes amazingly gigantic themes, renders them bite size, and gives them humanity and humor. It's the humor part that really impressed me.

T.J. Jones (actual name The Tao Jones... pronounce it, I dare you) is probably one of three people of color in his small Washington town. Adopted by his parents when he was a seriously abused toddler, T.J.'s a pretty well put together kid. That's probably in no small part due to his amazing mom and dad and his fantastic (some might say godlike) child therapist, Georgia. Which isn't to say that T.J.'s life is bereft of odd problems. His favorite teacher, Simet, is trying to lure T.J. into helping him start a school swim team. There are a couple problems with this plan. For one thing, T.J. refuses to join any organized sports. Cutter High School is run by and for its jocks. These jocks have been trying for years (unsuccessfully) to get T.J. onto one of their teams. Also, the school has no swimming pool. So T.J. isn't exactly thrilled about the idea of getting roped into this situation until he sees some of the local heavies beating up a mentally handicapped kid because he refuses to stop wearing his dead jock brother's letter jacket. Suddenly our hero has a mission, and the mission is clear. To create a swim team comprised of the kind of guys who otherwise could never be able to get involved in an organized sport. Even better, he's going to get each and every one of them a letter jacket.

This is just the barest of outlines describing this book. T.J. has a lot going on in his life and this includes his father's guilt about accidentally killing a toddler some thirty years before, a girl who tries continually to wash her skin clean of pigment, her psychotic father who is both a wife abuser and T.J.'s enemy, and a team that becomes closer as their problems become clearer. This is truly a book written about a man for men. Which isn't to say that girls won't love this tale, or that it's bereft of strong female characters. In fact, Crutcher is especially good at balancing women who've been abused in the past with their far stronger counterparts. No, when I say that this is a boy book, I'm referring to the fact that the central focus of this story rests squarely on the male swimming team. Sure, T.J. has a girlfriend but her presence in this story is probably just to prove to the viewer that he's a well adjusted guy with a well adjusted gal. Honestly, his relationship is not the focus of this tale. And that's kinda refreshing.

I think what I liked best about this book was that it recognized that behind every crazed idiot, there's a reason they act the way they do. Crutcher isn't the best young adult writer that knows about abuse (that honor belongs squarely to Alex Flinn) but he comes close. A person could learn more from reading this book about the cyclical nature of violence than they would from almost any other source. I'm praising the book, but it's not without the occasional flaw. Consider, for example, the character of Tay-Roy. This is a bodybuilder that joins the team and has, basically, no real personality. As far as I could determine, everything Tay-Roy does could have been accomplished by T.J. They're similar in every respect, except that Tay-Roy's white and slightly better looking. It's odd that Crutcher would have kept himself from omitting extraneous characters like this one, but as flaws go, this one's pretty minimal. The worst I can say is that it slightly derails the flow of the text. Big whoop.

What Crutcher has as a writer that puts him heads and tails above and beyond his peers (some, at any rate) is his sense of humor. You cannot dislike a book where the main character is named The Tao Jones. You just can't. I mentioned that I think that Alex Flinn is the all-powerful guru of abused teens, but what Crutcher doesn't have in superior knowledge he makes up for in funnies. I'm sick and tired of all the deadly depressing books out there. If every writer could fill their texts with half as much pleasurable writing as Mr. C, I'd have a heckuva harder time figuring out which book to read next. In the end, "Whale Talk" accomplishes that mighty difficult task of being a good book about a near impossible subject. Abuse. Whether or not you agree that Crutcher wrote about this topic with the correct amount of respect, you have to admit he wrote about it well. I tip my hat to the man who's books I will now have to devour one by one to satiate my now uncontrollable young adult literature craving. Such is life.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Whale Talk is a book that takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of emotions. The books warms the heart, infuriates, teaches, and opens the eyes of any reader that picks this book up.
The Tao Jones is a mixed race character who is adopted from a drug-addicted mother. Tao is taken in by a truck driving dad and lawyer mother who are just about the coolest parents on earth, but they aren't without their own baggage.

Whale Talk is a masterfully woven tale that traces Tao through his struggles in a racist society that is also a little elitist. Tao, like most of Crutcher's protagonists, is a great athlete with a strange sense of humor. Tao enjoys getting even with those who single out he, or any other character in the high school that is different, by using the predators' ignorance against them.
All in all, this is an honest portrayal of a complex mix of race, family secrets and small town routines held up by the Good Ol' Boy system along with serious developmental pshychological issues.
This book will make you laugh, it will make you cry, but most importantly, it will make you examine your inner-most being in ways that will surprise you.
Chris Crutcher is the undisputed King of YA Literature, which he proves with his most powerful YA novel to date.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Chris Crutcher, Whale Talk (Dell, 2001)

It's always the best books that poke their heads up over the radar, only to have them lopped off by people who just don't get it. Whale Talk is listed by the American Library Association-- the folks who put out those neat lists of books that inbred know-nothings feel the need to attack in school libraries (aka the lists of "this is what I'll read next" for thousands upon thousands of American high-school kids)-- as one of the ten most challenged books of 2005. This makes perfect sense, because Whale Talk is probably the best young adult novel I've read since I first discovered Philip Pullman's wonderful (and similarly challenged) trilogy His Dark Materials.

T. J. Jones is a mixed-race high-school student in the Pacific Northwest, and he's also got something of an attitude problem. He's athletic, but ignores organized sports at his competition-rabid school until he sees the younger brother of a now-dead local hero getting pushed around for wearing his brother's letter jacket. Jones decides to retaliate by starting a swim team-- at a school that doesn't even have its own pool. He recruits a number of misfits (including Chris, the pushed-around, mentally challenged kid), lines up a coach, and sets out to, if not humiliate the sports freaks around him, at least show them that the outcasts can perform, too. What he doesn't expect is that the long bus rides to swim meets around the region will create a sense of camaraderie among them.

The most important thing that makes this book so good is the characterization. Crutcher has filled his book with well-drawn, memorable, interesting characters who will keep the reader entertained for its duration. Dropping them into an amusing David-and-Goliath plot helps, but the real kick with the plotline is the way Crutcher drags in portentous events and makes them unpredictable; we expect some sort of great revelation, for example, when Crutcher dumps his busful of kids off the road in the snow, but instead gives us the far more practical outcome of a tow truck. It's little pieces of realism like this that keep the ball rolling along as well as it does.

Yes, there is bad language. And yes, there is racism. It's not surprising when you're dealing with the only mixed-race student in an entire high school (especially one who refuses to play football or basketball). But then, that's one of the novel's big points-- that the racism T. J. encounters is not just the overt uses of the N-word, but the pervasive attitude that surrounds him. It's exceptionally well-done, which may be the root of the reason why the moronic contingent seems so scared of this novel. After all, the better you get your point across, the more that point is likely to scare those who fear your point. And in this case, Chris Crutcher has done a truly exceptional job. This one's likely to end up on my ten best reads of the year list. **** ½
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2001
I've been a big fan of Chris Crutcher's work since Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and the new Whale Talk draws on the same stuff that made that book an awesome read: swimming, intolerance, bad home lives, and what it is to be an outcast. Whale Talk is about The Tao Jones (T.J. for short), a mixed-race guy in a very white town, who despite being very athletic refuses to participate in organized sports. That is, until his favorite teacher, Mr. Simet, grabs him for his new swim team. Though there are some difficulties (the school has no pool and no one can actually swim except for T.J.), together they round up an unlikely group of swimmers: a brain-damaged boy, a bodybuilder, a walking-thesaurus intellectual, an overweight guy, a shadow, and a one-legged psycho. T.J.'s mission? To get this band of misfits some highly-valued letter jackets. Throw in the racial undertones and some really funny dialogue and Crutcher's got another really great book on his hands. Though a teensy bit derivative, definitely worth reading. (Watch out for the character of Andy Mott. Crutcher always seems to pick a character we are meant to love with abandon. In Sarah Byrnes, it was Ellerby. In Whale Talk, it's definitely Mott.) It also reads really fast...I couldn't put it down till I had finished it, though it meant staying up half the night. Two thumbs up.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2005
Book Review: WHALE TALK by Chris Crutcher

Chris Crutcher's WHALE TALK may offend some readers in a variety of ways. The profanity is prolific; furthermore, the talk about drugs, sex, and violence fills about two-thirds of the pages. However, if a teacher-reader wades through the offending characteristics, the novel is filled with merit. When students choose this text for independent reading, wise teachers will warn parents; but, wise teachers will also couple the warning with insightful perspectives about the appeal and wisdom of this young-adult book - listed on American Library Association's Top Ten Best.

One of the lasting impressions of merit that the book holds is its imagery. Crutcher creates visuals that will surely haunt each and every reader - word pictures that sink into the soul of those who immerse themselves in the text.

"His mother's boyfriend wrapped his face in Saran Wrap to make him stop crying." . . . "I will forever remember the sensation of that animal going slack in my hold as the bullet went through his temple." . . . "She discovered a small severed arm lying next to the white line about a mile and a half outside the city limits, maybe a hundred yards from where the truck spit out the rest of the little boy's mangled body." . . . "He whips off the T-shirt, kicks off his shoes as he sits on the bench, pulls off his sweatpants, then unstraps his right LEG." . . . "He'd tie my leg to the pipe under the kitchen sink, give me a big ol' aluminum bowl to pee in, and take off with his buddies." . . . "Your stepdaughter came out of the bathroom with her forearm bleeding because she tried to change the color of her skin with a Brillo pad. YOU told her it would work."

Beyond the imagery, the "whale talk" of the novel creates a myriad of possibilities for writing, for discussing, and - most significantly - for living.

"I tell him about whale talk, how if we knew more about humans, maybe we could accommodate one another better." . . . "If you've been treated bad, you're going to have to find a way to get over it." . . . "Absent the element of hate, a person's skin color is only an indication of his or her geographical ancestry. But WITH that element, it is a soul stealer." . . . "Healthy people want to solve their own problems. Best way to be healthy in any relationship is to take care of yourself and let the other person do the same." . . . "Those years were full of losses, and even though I don't remember them in my mind, my body - my being - remembers." . . . "Whale talk is the truth."

Chris Crutcher's WHALE TALK will not be ignored. Young and old can delve its depths. Its treasures are deep and wise. The intricate map to their discovery is filled with unforgettable images. The reader will value the treasures for a long, long time.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2001
In typical Crutcher style, Whale Talk is set in a small town High School. Our hero, T.J.Jones, is a mixed race natural athlete who spurns the athletic department "machine" at Cutter High. Racism and intolerance enter the equation as sharp tongued, quick witted T.J.comes to the aid of developmentally disabled Chris, who, though no athlete, has the audacity to wear his dead older brother's letter jacket. T.J. gets his chance to thumb his nose at Cutter's sports establishment when his favorite teacher implores him to "help him out" by heading up a swim team. T.J. has swum competitively and is a natural, but, alas, Cutter High has no pool. T.J. recruits four of the most unnatural swimmers, and one of them inspires him to "go for it." Sheer determination and relentless late night and early morning workouts at a 24-hour fitness center with a pool earn the ultimate prize for this team. The bond that develops between the unconventional teammates is heartwarming and allows each to share unbelievable hurts and sorrows. Themes of abuse and abandonment recur, and the pain and anger generated by the suffering Mr. Crutcher shares with us will bring tears. You will laugh out loud as well as cry, but you will enjoy unraveling the mystery that is the title. I am a dedicated Crutcher fan, so I enjoy his consistent settings and themes. Some very powerful messages are offered to readers of Whale Talk. Good reading!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2002
I read a lot and I have to say that this is probably one of the best books that I have ever had the pleasure of reading.It is the story of the all around gifted TJ who gets together a team of misfits to swim.It starts out as a plan of revenge to his arch enemy Mike Barbour, but soon turns into something more.The team comes to love the bus rides to meets where everyone spills their deepest darkest secrets and a great friendship between the group is formed, almost a brotherhood.This book deals with a lot of issues, most of them serious, but Crutcher fills the book with humor.This is an all around great book.I must warn though, the language content is high, and some of the issues talked about might be over the heads of a 10 year old, so unless you are at least 12, wait to read this book.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2001
Chris Crutcher is the only author in the world that can make you cry reading chapter ONE -- then laugh reading chapter two. I did and continued that way through the rest of the book. Whale Talk is about T.J. Jones, who rejects the idea of being a cool letterman jock until a teacher asks him to help form a swim team. T.J. is sick of seeing how jocks treat some of the less fortunate kids, so he comes up with a plan: Start a team with all the nerds, [...], and misfits, even if there's no regulation-sized pool and none of them can swim. The team and, especially, the bus to meets becomes a place where these school outcasts can find true acceptance and friendship they've never had before. Like Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, this is a great book about dealing with differences. Everyone should read it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
It should come as no surprise that the newest book by Chris Crutcher, young adult literature titan, sets new ground as far as excellence is concerned.
In the recently released "Whale Talk," Crutcher does exactly what he has done before, in such books as "The Crazy Horse Electric Game," "Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes," and "Ironman."
Thank God. A true master realizes you don't mess with perfection.
On the surface, the story is simple. It's only upon further examination that the complexities are revealed.
The Tao Jones (call him TJ) is a high schooler of mixed Japanese and African-American race, the adopted son of a white couple composed of a sophisticated lawyer and a former trucker, and a gifted swimmer. When a controversy arises over letterman's jackets, TJ finds himself putting together a swim team right out of "The Far Side."
There's a kid whose mother's boyfriend wrapped his face in saran wrap as a baby to stop him from crying, and cut off the oxygen from his brain. There's also a guy who is just enormous and not built for the water, a virtual ghost who never says a word, an assistant coach who is living in a 24-hour gym to put his son through college, a studly guy who attracts the female crowd, an absolute brainiac, and a one-legged psychopath.
Intertwined with the humor that arises from such a situation is the story of Crutcher's characters' lives. TJ is at odds with a local maniac, who just happens to be the abusive white stepfather of a half-African-American little girl. When things get to be too much at home, TJ and his family take Heidi in, which doesn't please the nutcase.
Crutcher effortlessly bounces between swim team and home struggles, as the psycho grows more and more desperate to get his family back and the team must overcome their apparent loser status to become champions.
Sounds pretty cut and dry, doesn't it? You think you know what's going to happen, don't you? You're wrong.
Crutcher adeptly finds a balance between comedy and drama, and heroes and heartbreak in "Whale Talk," which has surpassed "Sarah Byrnes" as my favorite Crutcher tale. You will laugh one moment, and cry the next. (Especially during the Happy Meal scene between Heidi and TJ's father. That one's going to get talked about for ages to come.)
I said before that Crutcher is doing with "Whale Talk" exactly what he has always done in his other works. Which is not entirely true. One gets the idea that Crutcher is testing the waters with many aspects of the new novel, seven years in the writing. There are parts in "Whale Talk" that are more gruesome, more hilarious and more touching, and which reach new heights.
Other, lesser critics will call "Whale Talk" formulaic. But Crutcher knows better than to fix what's not broken.
Instead, he only plays with it to come up with his best offering yet. Crutcher went outside his comfort zone and outside the comfort zones of his readers.
The result is the equivalent of a chef taking an old favorite recipe, throwing in some new spices and whipping up a zesty new dish on the brink of perfection.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2003
Chris Crutcher did an excellent job of writing a book that will interest a wide variety of readers. This book has something for both genders and for both young adults and adults. Whale Talk is refreshingly funny but also takes a serious look at human nature.
T.J. Jones finds himself to be the center of controversy in more ways than one. T.J. is seventeen years old and has been the dream from many coaches through his school years. Although he is a tremendous athlete, he rejects the idea of ever being a part of organized sports which infuriates these coaches. All this is until the day Coach Simet apporaches T.J. to be a part of a new swim team at Cutter High School. T.J. reluctantly agrees after realizing a swim team could help him make a statement to some people he doesn't like.
Being a part of this swim team changes T.J. throughout the year. For those of you who can relate to the 80's this swim team reminds me of the Rat Pack in "The Breakfast Club." These are seven guys you would never match together for any athletic event but end up being more of a team than T.J. had planned for.
Not only does this book take you on an athletic journey but it takes you on a journey in family life and relationships. Through his family, T.J. learns a true lesson in compassion and forgiveness.
This is a hard book to put down. It will make you laugh as these seven misfits find their place on Cutter's swim team but will also teach you a lesson on having compassion for people around you who are different. Sometimes, like T.J., compassion is learned the hard way.
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