Top 100 Children’s Novels #45: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
This book took me to another time and place, unlike any other book. Haunting. Before Katniss, there was Karana. – DeAnn Okamura
Oo. Leave it to DeAnn to come up with the best line of them all. “Before Katniss, there was Karana”. I am so quoting you on that, m’dear. Beautifully put.
The publisher’s description of the plot reads, “In the Pacific there is an island that looks like a big fish sunning itself in the sea. Around it, blue dolphins swim, otters play, and sea elephants and sea birds abound. Once, Indians also lived on the island. And when they left and sailed to the east, one young girl was left behind. This is the story of Karana, the Indian girl who lived alone for years on the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Year after year, she watched one season pass into another and waited for a ship to take her away. But while she waited, she kept herself alive by building shelter, making weapons, finding food, and fighting her enemies, the wild dogs. It is not only an unusual adventure of survival, but also a tale of natural beauty and personal discovery.”
She was the Lost Woman of San Nicolas Island. A woman who had lived there all by herself from 1835 to 1853. Jan Timbrook, Curator of Ethnography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, gives a little background on her true story. “In the early 1800’s, Russian and Aleut sea otter hunters clashed violently with Indian people living on remote San Nicolas Island. The mission padres requested that these Indians be moved to the mainland for their own safety, and in 1835 a schooner was sent to pick them up. As the ship was being loaded, a woman discovered her child had been left in the village and went back to find it. Meanwhile a strong wind arose. The ship was forced to sail and the woman was abandoned on the island, her child apparently killed by wild dogs. The schooner was unable to go back for her, and she spent eighteen years alone on the barren, windswept island. She never saw her fellow islanders again.” There is more info here. After she died the DAR (the DAR?) gave her a plaque in her honor. Here it is:
When O’Dell heard of her he was, according to Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children, a book review editor for the Los Angeles Times. So he wrote a book about a similar woman but the audience, to him anyway, was unknown. According to David L. Russell’s book Scott O’Dell, he once said of the book, “I didn’t know what young people were reading and I didn’t consider [Island of the Blue Dolphins] a children’s book, necessarily. [It] was a protest against the hunters who came into our mountains and killed everything that crept or walked or flew. I sent the story to my agents. They sent it back to me by return mail, saying that if I was serious about the story I should change the girl to a boy, because girls were only interested in romance and such. This seemed silly to me. So I picked up the story, went to New York City, and gave it to my editor, who accepted it the next day. When it won the Newbery Medal, I was launched into writing for children and young adults.”
After that O’Dell would never write for adults again. Which, if we are to believe, C. Anita Tarr’s “Apologizing for Scott O’Dell –Too Little, Too Late” from Children’s Literature 2002, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Tarr writes, “It has always disturbed me that this author of mediocre historical novels for adults was awarded accolades when he began writing for children.”
There was a sequel to this book, actually. In 1976 O’Dell wrote Zia which Malcolm Usrey in American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction said was, “an entertaining story, but it lacks the verve and force of Island of the Blue Dolphins and The King’s Fifth.”
The book has met some criticism since we’re talking about a book where an old white man wrote a story about a young American Indian woman. Elizabeth Hall, O’Dell’s wife, says of the book, “Children in Kotzebue, a town in the far north of Alaska were so taken with Scott’s portrayal of Native Americans that they invited him to accompany their class on a trip to Siberia, to see the land of their ancestors. I do agree that it’s difficult to write authentically about characters from another culture, and I agree that a lot of it has been done badly. It takes an immense amount of research and a huge dose of empathy. Human emotions have not changed since our ancestors were hunter-gatherers in Africa. All that has changed is the situations that evoke those emotions.”
Hazel Rochman’s “Another Look At: Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins” found in the April 15, 2007 issue of Booklist makes another interesting point. “Readers familiar with children’s literature will know that … Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Newbery winner in 1961, also wins the endurance race, but it’s doubtful whether the experts of the day would have predicted it to outlast Walter Edmonds’ The Matchlock Gun, Newbery winner in 1942. Edmonds’ novel had the feel of a classic western, High Noon for kids. What we didn’t know then was that our interpretation of what appeared at midcentury to be an archetypal story, settler versus Indian, would change dramatically in the late 1960s and beyond, leaving readers with zero tolerance for passages describing Native Americans as savages who looked like dogs.” Not to give anything away but The Matchlock Gun does not make it onto this Top 100 Children’s Novels List. It never even got a single vote.
In the Jezebel article Island of the Blue Dolphins: I’m a Cormorant and I Don’t Care, Lizzie Skurnick considers some aspects of the book with her customary verve. Tons of great lines to be found there. One of the best: “. . . this ties into my next vaguely-holiday-related point, which is that girls don’t really want to play with dolls; they want to perform tasks. (They do still care about clothes, however — after she plunges into the sea to swim back to Ramo, she says: “The only thing that made me angry was that my beautiful skirt of yucca fibers, which I had worked on so hard, was ruined.”) Because after she is left to fend for herself, Karana displays a dizzying competence that might even trump Ma’s comprehensive mastery over the pig. She gathers abalones and dries them like a champ. She kills a bunch of wild dogs and tames another one. She builds a huge fence out of whale bones and catches a billion sai sai fish to burn for light. She builds canoes, she outwits Aleut visitors, she almost manages to kill a bull elephant (ummm…hippo?) and a devilfish (octopus!). And best of all, as much as the Tea-tree-candle-copy prose gets on my nerves, it is blessedly free of the cutesy, Up-With-People prose of the American Girl series and other spunk-filled (not THAT kind of spunk, you pervs) books girls have to contend with nowadays.”
And he was a first time 60-year-old children’s author who won a Newbery! The year it won it beat America Moves Forward: A History for Peter by Gerald W. Johnson, Old Ramon by Jack Schaefer, and The Cricket In Times Square by George Selden. Fifty points to anyone who has read all four of these.
You can read some of the title here
- You can read more about Scott O’Dell himself here.
- A book was written about the woman who inspired this novel, called Lone Woman of Ghalas-Hat.
- In 1982 the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction was established. Each year it goes to the most notable work of historical fiction for kids. The choices, for that matter, are often stellar.
- 100 Scope Notes re-covered the book here.
- In 2003 The Mendocino Quilt Artists each selected a book that was important to them when they were young. Leila Kazimi selected Island of the Blue Dolphins, shown here:
School Library Journal gave it a star and said it was, “A haunting and unusual story…”
A bunch of covers to pick from this time.
The cover from Israel:
There was a movie in 1964. It was apparently just awful. Gee, can’t imagine why. After all, with a tagline like “A Girl’s Incredible Adventure on a Lost Island!” and a pretty clearly white heroine who wears a short buckskin skirt the whole time, what’s there to possibly object to?
Obviously I much prefer the 90-Second Newbery version done with oddly bloody claymation.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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