Island of the Blue Dolphins

On a whim, recently, I browsed the list of Newbery Award winners at the ALA website. I consider myself fairly well-read when it comes to children’s literature, so I was really surprised to see how few of these I’ve actually managed to get through. Yes, when I was a kid I literally took paper grocery bags full of books home every week — but they apparently weren’t full of Newbery winners. I’ve really only read a handful. So it was nice to get a start on getting through them by reading one I remember seeing on the shelf of every classroom I ever inhabited: Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell.

I would have loved this book as a kid. By saying that, I don’t mean I didn’t like it as an adult, because I did — it’s a survival story, and I adore survival stories. It’s the story of Karana, a young indigenous girl who lives on an island in the Pacific. When Aleutians, captained by a Russian, come and attack her people, they are forced to leave and sail east, and she is accidentally left behind. The book is the story of her survival, alone on her island with only the remnants of her tribe and the wild animals that live there to keep her company.

The details are the best part about the story. I loved Karana’s clever creation of shelter for herself, her resourcefulness in getting and storing food, her ability to defend herself against the pack of wild dogs that roam the island. My adult brain kept asking questions, though: if jobs were divided by gender, how would she have the faintest idea how to make or use a spear? Wouldn’t a small tribe be so communal that the sheer loneliness would upset her psychologically more than this? Would she really take the trouble to make herself jewelry and elaborate clothes, when survival is such a struggle?

Still, even with niggling doubts, I enjoyed the story. It’s nicely told, respectful of Karana and her people, and it has tension and touching moments. It may not have rocked my world, but it was certainly worth reading.

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26 Responses to Island of the Blue Dolphins

  1. Sara Coffman says:

    This book is one I did love as a kid but haven’t reread as an adult. I hope you’ll continue picking up a Newbery here and there. There are so many good ones.

    • Jenny says:

      Just browsing through the list, I saw dozens I know the titles of but have never picked up. I’d love to read more. I’d say I plan to make it a project, but I’m afraid that would be a fib at this point. Let’s say more of a vague intention. :)

  2. Jenny says:

    God, I hated this book. I had to read it in third and fourth grade, and everyone else loved it, and I just loathed it. It’s one of the many books I had to read for school that made me secretly sort of hate the Newbery prize (I don’t anymore, ever since they gave it to Neil Gaiman :p). I think it was partly that I don’t like survival books (apart from I guess The Swiss Family Robinson), and partly that I hated reading books in school in third and fourth grade. :/

    • Jenny says:

      Ah, a point of difference: I *love* survival books, and have a special weird fondness for books about the Arctic and Antarctic. I like it when people have to hack their way through the wilderness and, um, churn their own piranha butter, and stuff. And also, I loved reading in third and fourth grade, to the exclusion of everything else, even having friends. But anyway, this one was not the best there is. So there’s that.

  3. I loved this book as a kid, but I haven’t revisited it as an adult. It’s a pretty short read, so I should probably do that. :)

  4. I have incredibly strong memories of hating this book as a kid, though I can’t remember my specific issues with it (though I do remember absolutely loathing Karana). I read it first on my own and was then horrified when, a year later, we studied it in school. I adored survival stories but definitely not this one!

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know why Karana would be particularly loathsome. She has a little bit of a faux-exotic voice, like not using contractions, so maybe that contributed? But she’s nice to animals and she’s resourceful, so she seems like she’d at least be neutral.

  5. This is was one of those books I read when I was like 7 or 8 and loved it, I have re-read it tons of times over the years. I can’t believe there are people who don’t like it! :O . Great post!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, sure, there are always conflicting opinions! And for some reason, the Newbery winners are always a bit hit or miss, because I don’t think they look for “books kids love” but for “literary quality” or something. But I’m glad this is one you liked.

  6. Bookish Hobbit says:

    I remember reading this one. I had it sitting on the shelf for the longest time as a kid, but never read it. I think I was in my early to mid teens when I finally did pick it up and I simply could not put it down!

    I can’t really say how I’d like it now as an adult, but it should be fun to re-read the book and find out. :)

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, it’s fun to see how books hold up over time. As I said, I think I enjoyed this less as an adult than I would have as a child, but it was fine, and a quick read, so try it and see!

  7. Teresa says:

    I read this in 7th grade (It was assigned in a class, I think), and I really liked it then–I too like survival stories, so I’m sure that’s what I liked about it, plus the fact that it featured a strong and smart girl. I never did return to it, nor do I think I read any more Scott O’Dell.

    I read tons of Newbery winners in elementary school, to the point where it was sort of a project. Dicey’s Song, Jacob Have I Loved, Bridge to Terebithia, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Caddie Woodlawn are all ones I remember liking.

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve read about half the ones you mention here — Caddie Woodlawn was a huge favorite of mine. (Sort of Little House-adjacent.) But others, I know what they’re about, having seen them dozens of times (Jacob Have I Loved is about… twins… right?) but have never read. I probably should get on that.

  8. softdrink says:

    I did love this book as a kid, and I think of it everytime I drive down the coast past Santa Barbara…I always look to see if the islands are visible. It has to be a really clear day to see them!

    • Jenny says:

      I read online that this was based on a true story, and that these Channel Islands are real. How cool that you can see them from time to time.

  9. Melissa says:

    I adored this book when I was little. I think I read it for the first time in 3rd grade. Isn’t it funny how we view books differently as adults? We’re so much more practical and realistic.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, and sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Like, I think my adult view of Little Women, or the Little House books, makes them even more enjoyable. But if the book wasn’t that good to begin with, it can be completely ruined by an adult perspective.

  10. Kailana says:

    It’s sad. I own this book and have for many many years, but I don’t think I ever got around to reading it.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, it’s a very quick read — I read it in a couple of hours — so you might see how you like it. Knock it off the list.

  11. Carin S. says:

    This was my favorite book as a child. I recently reread and although it was still good, the magic was gone. Bummer.

    • Jenny says:

      Aw! That’s too bad. Some books really hold up (I mentioned Little Women above) and others just don’t. I’ve recently been wondering if The Westing Game would still be good.

  12. John Mutford says:

    (Visiting from the Chrisbookarama blog)

    Like you, I somehow missed this one as a child, but remedied that a few years back. I still haven’t read the sequel though, but then, most people haven’t.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I don’t think the sequel appeals. Maybe I’ll forge ahead to different Newbery winners, instead.

  13. Amanda says:

    I loved this book when I was little. I moved during my elementary years and so this was required reading twice. I always adored this type of book.

    • Jenny says:

      By “this type of book,” do you mean survival books, or Newbery winners, or books about indigenous islanders, or books about smart, resilient girls? I like some subset of those, too :)

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