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Book Review: The Lost Whale by Hannah Gold (HarperCollins)

Illustrated by Levi Pinfold

For ages 8+

I spent most of 2021 preaching to the world about the genius of debut author, Hannah Gold's 'The Last Bear' and had no qualms in January of that year predicting it'd be my book of the year. Believe me there were a handful of middle grade titles that came fairly close. Gold's debut was groundbreaking - we were in lockdown and HarperCollins and booksellers (including myself at the time) worked every angle possible to spread the good news about this uplifting conservation story that made our hearts sing and eyes shine with love and loss. Winning awards all over the place (Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2022, Blue Peter Book Award 2022) and now shortlisted for the British Book Awards Children's Fiction Book of the Year 2022; you can hopefully imagine the anticipation we felt across the children's book world for 'The Lost Whale'!! Epic!!

There seems to be a glorious ease to reading a Gold children's book. Her storytelling is so powerful it feels like it flows through your veins. There is no complexity, apart from facts of nature about the animals in the story. An adult or a child can simply open the book and let the words take them into their imagination, it's not possible to not enjoy it!

About the story

On the face of it, this is a story about an 11 year old child carer from London, England, who lives alone with his mother. Rio's mother suffers from mental illness. Life is hard, it's a daily struggle. Rio has had to learn to cope with trying to lift her up, to keep her going, to feed her when she is disassociating and detached. He loves her with all his heart and he worries about her constantly, forgetting himself and his needs, she is his all. Are you tearing up already? I am just writing this paragraph... standing back from a book and examining the shell of the narrative can be incredibly emotional once you have been on the journey with the characters from start to finish.

The story starts with Rio landing in Los Angeles, California. Things have gotten worse at home and his mother has had to be admitted for treatment. Change, shock, homesickness, internalising all this devastation, Rio is sent to stay with his mother's mother, Fran. Fran lives in Ocean Bay, the house where his mother grew up before she left to pursue a career as a violinist. Not having had any previous contact with Fran and knowing that there was some estrangement between his grandmother and his mother, Rio's mind is only on getting back to London. Fran is kind, observant, patient and gives Rio the space he needs.

Carers, particularly child carers, find it very hard to forgive themselves for any freedom or fun. At first, Rio cannot do anything but think about his mother, he is filled with guilt, fears for her safety if he's not with her, the anxiety on the page are utterly palpable. The reader feels that Rio has never had any respite in his life, never experienced a belly laugh or felt completely relaxed and at peace in a beautiful moment. The brilliance of Gold's compassion and intuition about this character is immeasurable.

Rio develops a fixation about how he can heal his mother even though he's so far from her physically. In his weekly calls to her he wants to "hear her smile", if she does that, then surely she's going to get better. This is where the whales come in. On discovering a 'box of joy' in his mother's bedroom at Fran's house, amongst his mum's keepsakes are a number of sketches of grey whales, including one called 'White Beak'. This is a side of his mother he never knew about before, a time in her life when she was happy, when she was a child, like him.

Like in 'The Last Bear', the reader is treated to new knowledge and a true understanding of the animal in the story. Gold's research for her books is amazing and you can read more about her real life whale adventures at the end of the book. Through a trip to the local museum Rio learns all about the grey whales: size, markings, migration routes, hunters, conservation efforts and more. There's a fantastic diagrammatic double spread illustration by Levi Pinfold showing the migration routes and key facts about these magnificent and threatened 'friendly whales' (eschrichtius robustus). More importantly he learns that they pass by the very bay he's staying in at this time of the year. Perhaps he'll get to see 'White Beak'!

What takes place next is an adventure of a lifetime. Rio makes a new friend, Marina. Her father, Birch, owns the Spyhopper, a whale-watching boat. As well as taking tourists out to sea, they track whales in a vast network of environmentalists, scientists, fishing crews and enthusiasts - all logged on a real life database called Rio discovers he has a special power to hear the whales communicating and can use this to locate them even when they're under the sea or too far away for binoculars.

Whilst coming into his own and enjoying building new relationships, and finding out what it's like to have scream-out-loud-across-the ocean-with-joy fun, never far from his mind is his quest to find his mother's grey whale. Eventually 'White Beak' and his mother become one and the same person in his mind. The whale looks at him with as deep a love as his mother does. Rio develops a deep connection with the whale, saving his life as he eventually does for her.

Throughout the book there are beautiful illustrations of whales, dolphins, and heart-shaped rainbows formed by the breath of the whale (they have two blowholes, instead of just one) - “a heart made from nature” says Rio. Illustrator, Levi Pinfold has yet again worked his magic.

Illustrations from the book by Levi Pinfold

Will Rio find a new home, a new life and a world filled with love that can be just as much for him as for his mother... and his new friends (human and whale)?

A beautiful and bold story of second chances. You'll love it... ocean's promise!

Here are some photos of grey whales as described by Gold in the story:

Find out more about the plight of the grey whales:

Watch a video about the grey whales on their migration route in Mexico:

About the creators

Hannah Gold (author)

Hannah Gold worked in the film and magazine industries before taking time out to pursue her dream of writing. The Last Bear, published by HarperCollins Children's Books, is her middle-grade debut which became an instant classic and international bestseller on release in 2021. It has won the Blue Peter Book Award for Best Story, the Waterstones Children's Book Prize for Younger Readers and Overall Children's Book of the Year, and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards Best Children's Book of the Year, nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal as well as being The Sunday Times Children's Book of the Week. The Lost Whale is Hannah’s second middle-grade novel which tells an incredible story about the connection between a boy and a whale and the bond that sets them both free. Both novels are illustrated by renowned artist Levi Pinfold. She lives in Stamford, Lincolnshire with her tortoise, her cat and her husband.

Levi Pinfold (illustrator)

For an up-to-date biography follow this link:

Key themes


Animal adventure




Mental illness

Child carers

Buy the book!

Here are my affiliate links, which means at no cost to you, I make a small commission when you click the links and complete a purchase.

Format: Paperback (Hardback now out of print)

Publication date: 2 February 2023

Format: Kindle e-book

Publication date: 2 February 2023

Format: Audible audiobook

Publication date: 2 February 2023

Also available from Hannah Gold and illustrated by Levi Pinfold:

'The Last Bear' (Hardback 2021, Paperback 2022)


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