How to Speak Dolphin by Ginny Rorby. May 26, 2015. Scholastic Press. 272 pages, Ages 8-12.
Life is not easy for Lily, or the rest of her family for that matter. Her mother was tragically killed by a drunk driver 2 years earlier, leaving a then 10-year old Lily left to shoulder much of the responsibility of caring for her severely autistic brother, Adam, along with her stepfather, Don.
Now twelve, Lily is more mother than sister to Adam, and though she loves her brother, she longs to have a normal twelve-year old life, complete with friends, boyfriends, and free time for herself. She is frustrated with Don's refusal to get Adam appropriate help, and they are both still grieving for her mother.
Then Don, an oncologist, is asked to consult on a case involving a young dolphin named Nori at the local aquarium. Knowing how much Adam loves dolphins, Don brings Adam, Lily, and Lily's new friend, Zoe, along. Nori and Adam bond instantly, which leads Don to believe the answer to "curing" Adam is dolphin therapy. Believing Nori to be his last hope for Adam, Don will not proclaim Nori "cured", only in "remission", which allows the aquarium to keep her indefinitely.
At Zoe's prompting, Lily comes to believe it is very wrong and selfish to keep Nori captive, even if for such a noble purpose as helping her brother and other disabled children. She and Zoe work to convince Don to release her before it's too late. But will he listen, or will Nori stay in captivity for the rest of her life? What will happen to Adam without her?
This is a very moving story that portrays the challenges families with autistic children face, as well as the confusion about all the various therapies that are offered to supposedly treat them. I found Lily and Adam's relationship to be very touching, and how she understood him and what he needed better than his own father. Adam's relationship with the young dolphin, Nori, was also very special and sweet, and it is understandable how people can believe animal therapy could be helpful.
This book also brings up the issue of the ethical treatment of animals, whether we have the right to place our needs above theirs, and how both animals and desperate people could be exploited for profit on unproven "therapies" that may or may not be more than simply a fun activity versus a real, unique and effective therapy.
I personally experienced many feeling while reading this book. I found myself feeling very angry at the stepfather's pig-headed, arrogant refusal to put Adam in programs designed to help autistic kids, and his unfairly dumping so much responsibility on his 12-year old step daughter. The relationship between Adam and Nori was very moving, and the plight of animals in captivity was thought provoking. I enjoyed this book very much, even if it was slightly heavy-handed with the message.
Obvious read-a-likes would be Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, which is also about an autistic child, though high-functioning and told from her perspective, Wonder by R. J. Palacio about a boy with a severe physical birth defect which is told from multiple points of view, and Out Of My Mind by Sharon Draper which also portrays the frustrations of a character who has difficulties communicating. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a realistic, moving, thought-provoking story and/or anyone with particular interests in children/families dealing with autism or other challenges, or the ethical treatment of animals.
Other Books By This Author
Dolphin Sky also features the treatment of dolphins, and a character with a disability (dyslexia). The Outside of a Horse considers the treatment of horses, and returning soldiers with PTSD. Lost In The River of Grass is a tale about survival in the Everglades. Hurt Go Happy features a deaf girl and a research chimpanzee who teaches her to sign after her parents won't allow her to learn sign language.