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.