Chasing at the Surface

Chasing at the Surface

by Sharon Mentyka


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2016 National Outdoor Book Award Winner for Children’s Literature

Sometimes finding your way home takes more than courage. It takes a leap of faith.

Chasing at the Surface tells the story of a young girl’s courage and the healing power of nature. After her mother unexpectedly leaves home, twelve-year old Marisa struggles with her feelings of loss and abandonment just as a pod of nineteen orca whales—mothers with their new calves following a run of chum salmon—become trapped in the enclosed inlet near her Northwest home. Marisa’s journey to help the whales find their way home brings her to a new understanding of the assaults humans have had on nature, and the complicated meaning of family and home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943328604
Publisher: Pruett Publishing Company
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Pages: 228
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Sharon Mentyka is a graduate of the MFA program of the Whidbey Writers Workshop and she has had stories and essays published in various literary magazines for both children and adults, including Columbia Kids , a publication of the Washington State History Museum, Soundings Review , and Cricket magazine. B in the World , an illustrated chapter book for children ages four to seven about a gender nonconforming child, was published in 2014.

Read an Excerpt

I stare out over the inlet. Already, the sky is darkening. Once the sun dips down behind the mountains, the light here goes fast. Dad turns off the water and tosses down the hose. He follows my gaze, then sits down on the grass beside me.

“Any mail?”

I hand over the bundle of magazines and bills, but shake my head no. I know what Dad really means, and for a split second, I feel a rush of guilt but quickly push it away.

Dad takes the mail, but stares at me.

“Marisa, I know what you did.”

I freeze, thinking he somehow knows about the recycled letter, but he couldn’t.

“Lena stopped by. She told me you guys saw the whales yesterday when you were out fishing.” Dad’s lips are pressed together in a pout. His eyes get that hurt puppy-dog expression. “Why didn’t you say anything to me this morning?”

I turn away quickly, and stare at the wooden slats of the dock. Why won’t you tell me the real reason Mom left?

I shrug. “It didn’t seem like a big deal.”

“You see the orcas up close in the inlet and you don’t think that’s a big enough deal to tell me?” Dad sighs a big sigh. I pick at the long grass, ripping out small bits and rolling them into little balls with my fingers. “If you won’t talk to me about a whale sighting—something that you care so much about—,”

“I just didn’t, okay?” I cut him off, aiming the grass pellets out towards the dock in perfect trajectories. When they hit, they relax and lose their tightly wound shape.

“No, Marisa, it’s not okay.” He stands and starts to pace back and forth in front of me. “Look, you know I’m not one to pressure, but a good attitude goes a long way.”

This is so far from what I was expecting to hear that I sit there, speechless.

“I know you’re struggling—but we have to work together,” Dad says. “I don’t know all the answers about why Mom left, and I’m not happy about it either. But I trust her. And you should too. Things aren’t as hopeless as you’re making them out to be.” He pauses, waiting. “C’mon,” he whispers. “Where’s my best girl? I miss her.”

I jump to my feet, the sudden movement shifting something inside me. The wooden dock in front of me is littered now with green flecks.

“I don’t know where she is, Dad. Maybe she’s gone!” My words come spitting out, sarcastic and cruel, hitting him as I turn and walk away. “Maybe she left with Mom.”


Q: What inspired you to write “Chasing at the Surface”?

As a writer, I’m interested in growing stories from small kernels of truth—items found in newspapers, bits of overheard conversations, little known historical facts. “Chasing at the Surface” is a good example. Although it’s a novel, and its characters and situations are fictional, the backstory for this book is based on a true event and much of the genealogy and science behind the study of killer whales is authentic.

The actual story goes like this. In the fall of 1997, nineteen Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW), members of L-25 sub-pod, paid an unexpected and unusual 30-day visit to Dyes Inlet, a small estuary in Puget Sound, near Seattle, Washington. Most experts believe they were following a run of chum salmon or maybe they were just curious, as killer whales can be. Either way, their 30-day visit was unforgettable.

When I decided I wanted to create a story to share the special excitement of that experience almost twenty years ago, I read all I could about the actual event, spoke to whale researchers, journalists and community residents, and visited Dyes Inlet many times. Much of what I learned became part of this book.

The story is also informed by my attempt to convey a particular sense of place—a pod of trapped orca whales in Puget Sound. The story can’t be simply uprooted and moved elsewhere. It’s not historical fiction exactly, but fiction informed by history and by what happens when you need to face situations and forces much more powerful than yourself.

Q: Are there elements of the story that relate to your own life?
Probably the most prominent personal theme of “Chasing at the Surface” is the meaning of family and discovering what it means to call a place ‘home.’ I was raised in a family where young voices were not only discouraged but often silenced, so a story about coming to recognize what is important in your own life, and learning to find the courage to fight for what you want is meaningful to me. I think that’s why I write stories for children. When I decided I wanted to write stories, I knew it would be for what I consider a very important audience because I wanted to share themes that were important to me as a child: fairness (or unfairness), transitions and helping the less powerful find their voice.

Q: What will kids relate to?

I think a lot of what is going to compel middle grade readers in “Chasing at the Surface” is the mystery of the orca whales. Why won’t they leave the inlet? What’s making them stay? How will Marisa and her friends help them get them out?

There’s just so much to learn and love about observing these highly social animals up close, and I’ve tried to bring some of these up-close experiences to life in the book. I’d be thrilled if kids found themselves wanting to learn more about orcas and orca habitat conservation after reading the book.

Q: What do adults say they like about the book?

Many adult readers enjoy the strong sense of place that the setting and the descriptions of orca habitat evokes. They also appreciate the theme of how important it is to establish a connection with nature, especially on a personal level. The vivid and accurate descriptions of the scenes with orcas have also resonated with adult readers. Other feedback includes how well the story offers a great and needed example of the importance of finding a balance between learning to trust ourselves and our intuition while at the same time being willing to ask for help when we need it—important concepts for middle grade readers.

Q: What are some of the issues and life events covered in the book that librarians could use in recommending the book?

Some key issues that “Chasing at the Surface” tackles are the genealogy and science of killer whales (Orcinus orca); wild orca and salmon habitat conservation; and how kids can take personal responsibility for protecting our environment. To a lesser degree, the book also touches on coping with parental crises, adoption and blended families—issues that that are a big part of the lives of many children today.

Q: What will educators and parents find valuable?

Today’s young readers will be faced with hard choices when they grow up as to how to keep our plant and nature’s wild species thriving. Understanding that the richness of natural diversity adds great value to our life on our planet is an important concept to learn at an early age. Discovering your own passion in life, whatever that may be, and finding the courage and faith within yourself to follow it is another valuable lesson that I have tried to impart in the book.

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