Picture a high school student named “The Tao,” adopted at around the age of 5 by very loving parents named Jones. You can imagine the remarks when he went to school and announced his name was “The Tao Jones.” After a lot of anger therapy as a result of being abused and abandoned by his birth mother, he matured into a great kid who goes by TJ. He’s witty, incisive, self-aware – a great athlete and very well-adjusted.
One day he observes Chris, a young disabled boy, being harassed by some football players. TJ, who mostly controls his towering temper, gets furious with the jocks, especially Mike Barbour. He designs a plan to get Chris a letter sweater of his own by starting a swim team. TJ assembles a team of misfits: Chris, a bodybuilder, a fat kid, a super smart kid, an invisible kid, and a psychopath. They are hampered by the fact that their school doesn’t have a pool, and the only pool where they can practice has only half-length lanes and one end is too shallow to allow for kick turns. However, the misfits turn out every morning at 3 am to practice and practice. They bond over the practices but even more over the bus rides to the meets, where they start to share their lives, and we learn TJ and Chris aren’t the only ones who were abused.
If this was just a feel-good about outsider kids triumphing over the system, it would still be good, because Crutcher’s sense of humor is laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s not. It illuminates the circle of abuse as TJ encounters abuse continuing among the kids he knows. This young adult book was critically acclaimed when it debuted and as quickly banned by some school libraries. Yes, there is language my father would never have tolerated, but that’s the way kids talk, especially away from their parents.
I especially liked listening to this in the car on an audiobook. I'm a very quick reader and sometimes miss emotional nuances in my rush to find out what happens. In the case of "Whale Talk," I'm glad I took the time.