Skip to content

Music of the Dolphins by Karen Hesse

The Music of the DolphinsIt isn’t surprising to read that Karen Hesse was thinking about speech when she began writing this book. But Mila was a girl who surprised everyone, even Karen, as she told her story.

Mila is a young girl discovered by the Coast Guard on a island near the coast of Florida, alone and covered with barnacles, having lived with dolphins for an undetermined amount of time. Mila is unable to communicate initially, and we first read her story through a newspaper article.

Point of view is an interesting aspect in this novel, as Hesse decided to tell much of the story through Mila’s point of view, though her language is developing throughout the story. The typeface and diction reflect Mila’s progress in learning the English language and this technique adds to the rich language of the novel. The words gain in power and meaning as Mila learns new words to express her emotions and the difficulty of being the “feral child” studied by the government, locked in a ward from which she cannot escape, and separate from the ocean and the dolphins who have been her family for so many years. Mila is taught language and music, which Mila enjoys. Those studying her have hopes that she will teach them more about the dolphins and how they communicate. Dolphin talk is the hope of the scientists studying Mila. Yet Mila is learning much more about communication, humans, and music.

Important Quotations for Discussion

“I listen to the music. It is little sounds and little sounds together to make something so big. It is a bird singing and a whale singing and a people singing. It is so many sounds I cannot name. To hear it, it makes a little crying in my eyes.” (page 53)

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I am thinking. But I am alone. I am trapped in the net of the room. In the net of the humans. I think maybe I am drowning in the net of humans.” (page 110)

“But what do people know of me? Only pictures on the television. Only words. I am a thing to look at, to play with. Not a thing to touch and care for.” (page 126)

“They say they want me back, but I think they are not interested in the girl named Mila. I think they are not interested in the girl named Olivia. I think they are interested in the dolphin girl, only the dolphin girl. All my life with humans it will be this way. I will always be this dolphin girl. The humans will be curious the way the dolphin is curious about a piece of garbage floating on the sea. A thing to play with, a thing to drag and toss around, but in the end a thing to leave behind.” (page 156)

Discussion Questions

  • How is Mila different from others? What is most surprising about Mila? What does she find most surprising about her new life with humans?
  • Compare and contrast Mila and Shay. How are they alike? How are they different?
  • Why is Dr. Beck studying Mila and Shay? What does Dr. Beck hope to learn? Do you think it is okay to keep Mila and Shay confined so they can be studied?
  • Why do you think music becomes important to Mila? How does the music change her?
  • How does Mila first react to learning English and new ideas? Does her learning change? How does her motivation for learning change during the story?
  • Why does the typeface change during the story? The language?
  • Why does Mila want to go back to the sea and her dolphin family?
  • What do you think Dr. Beck and the other scientists learned from Mila?
  • Why do you think Karen Hesse decided to call the book The Music of the Dolphins? What does the title mean to you?

Writing Ideas

  • Compare Mila and Shay. How do each of them progress in the story? What kind of relationship do the two of them have? Why does Shay stop progressing? Is Mila right when she says that Shay is locked inside? Why is Mila different?
  • According to Dr. Beck, Mila is the first feral child to make true progress. Does Mila make progress throughout the novel? What about the end of the novel? Is her journey successful? Why or why not? What evidence from the text tells you that this is true?
  • Discuss the role of music in Mila’s life, both in the dolphin world and the human world. What is the music in each world? How is this music part of her life? How do we see Mila’s growth and change through her music? This is a great opportunity to bring in Mozart for students – as certainly Mila’s story includes music, so must the reading, discussing and writing of the novel. Music journals and writing is an excellent activity prior to starting an essay about Mila’s music in The Music of the Dolphins.


Scholastic book page

Interview by Students at Scholastic (scroll down for questions pertaining to The Music of the Dolphins)

Publishers Weekly Review

“How A Children’s Writer Survives the Newbery Award” with Karen Hesse (Institute of Children’s Literature)


Love reading books by Karen Hesse? Check out my blog post about Just Juice!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

The Reading Corner

A Book Blog for Teachers, Readers & Writers

Reading to the Core

Just another site

Read, Reflect, Write, and Share.

Learning about reading and writing in a high school English classroom.




Mark Fearing Illustration

The Classroom Bookshelf

Books, teaching, writing....and more books


A meeting place for a world of reflective writers.

Pernille Ripp

Teacher. Author. Creator. Speaker. Mom.

The Bookshelf of Emily J.


Nerdy Book Club

A community of readers

English's Education

Books, teaching, writing....and more books

NCTE High School Matters

Books, teaching, writing....and more books

Teacher Tech

Alice Keeler

Kylene Beers

Reader. Writer. Teacher. Speaker. Current Cancer Fighter

Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious Says: Teachers are People Too

%d bloggers like this: