Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is based on the true story of 19th- century Nicoleño Native American Karana’s 18-year lone survival on California’s San Nicolas Island. When most of the men of the island are killed in a battle with Russian and Aleut fishermen, the remaining Nicoleños decide to travel to the mainland of California. Young teenage Karana, the main character who narrates the whole book, boards the ship, but when seeing her little brother has missed the boat, Karana jumps into the stormy waters and swims back to him. Their reunion is short lived, and soon Karana is mourning the death of her brother and facing living on the island by herself.



What I liked.  I liked how O’Dell made such a strong female character; she’s so smart and brave. I loved how she had to learn to make weapons and hunt, normally men’s work. O’Dell introduced kids to the idea of gender roles in such a great way. Karana reminded me a lot of the wonderful May B by Caroline Starr Rose.




What was interesting. Rereading this book as an adult was such a different experience than as a child. As a child, I don’t remember being frightened by this book at all; I just remember thinking that Karana and Julie (of the wolves) were so cool and resourceful. But as an adult thinking about this girl, losing her father, jumping over board to save her brother only to have him killed by wild dogs, then taming one of the fratricidal dogs, surviving 18 years worrying about the patricidal hunters returning, only to finally escape and find out your whole village had died on the boat you jumped off of is. . . a horrifyingly bleak story.  Of course, I can see how I didn’t think of it that way as a kid; it’s not written to be very depressing or bleak and Karana is really cool and resourceful, and the reader comes to love the dog Ramo quite a bit as well.




What were some limitations. I felt like in a lot of ways the story ended too soon. What was Karana’s life like in California? How did she come to the mission? How did she think about her time on the island? I think the ending with its few details about what happened to the rest of her people left me wanting a lot more.




Similarity to other Newbery winners. In many ways, Island of the Blue Dolphins feels like a classic Newbery to me: read a lot in school, strong female lead, authentic depiction of Native American culture, and a survivor story. But really it was somewhat ground breaking on that front.  1941 Newbery Call It Courage is a Polynesian boy survivor story, and Invincible Louisa, Caddie Woodlawn, Roller Skates, Thimble Summer, and Strawberry Girl all had strong and brave female protagonists. And like 1973 Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, I’m guessing that I’ll find traces of the spirit of Island of the Blue Dolphins in Newberies that follow it.




What it teaches me as a writer. One thing I keep circling back to in reading these Newberies (I wrote about it first in Carry on Mr. Bowditch) is the importance of the protagonists as a problem-solving guide—noticing important details, thinking through possible problems, and ultimately solving the challenge at hand. It’s what makes some of my favorite books like The Martian, The Swiss Family Robinson, May B, and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency so great. (It seems to be a hallmark of detective and survivor stories…perhaps that means I’d enjoy the classic Robinson Crusoe and Sherlock Holmes books?)




Have you read Island of the Blue Dolphin? What are your favorite survivor books?




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10 Responses to Newbery Review # 40 (Island of the Blue Dolphins, O’Dell, 1961)

  1. Anne Hays says:

    I almost always want to read the book after you review it -maybe to see if I agree with your comments, but also because you make it appealing. I liked your comparison between your reaction when you read it as a young person and the concerns you had reading it as an adult. Are you surprised that an adult would have decided to publish it?

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Oh, I think you’d enjoy reading this one since it’s island life is so filled with boats and sea! I think I’m mostly surprised that the publisher kept the little brother getting killed by the dogs in there. It’s part of the legend of her life that’s a little less documented, only coming out later as part of the story, and it’s pretty unusual to have the kind of bloody end to a child I think. I think that children dying becomes something that Newberies address (like Bridge to Terabithia) but not in quite such a graphic way. But it’s the reason that she stays and yet is alone all those years, so I suppose it’s pretty central to the story.

  2. Megan says:

    I loved this book when I was younger, and I totally agree that it didn’t seem so scary then. I really took the death of her brother hard as a kid, but I also loved how resourceful and strong she is. Such a powerful story and a great review!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      I remember loving it too, but I hadn’t remembered the brother dying that way, which I would have thought that I would have. In reading it again, it’s amazing that author makes you hate the dogs for killing the brother, but then you get to know that one dog so well the dog’s death at the end is almost as sad as the brother’s. I felt like there were so many interesting little things in this book that I sort of wished I had all of book club to bounce things off of in re-reading it. (Like how the author would randomly describe her as so beautiful, and so into beads and skirts. And I thought is this detail really relevant? If you were trying to survive all by yourself would you really put on fancy clothes and beads and stroll along the cliff tops??)

  3. I read this when I was in fifth or sixth grade but remember almost nothing about it, but I don’t remember finding it scary either. It’s good to note that as adults, we sometimes judge that elements of children’s stories will be “too scary for kids” but that isn’t always the case, as our own memories can prove.

    Also, I didn’t know it was based on a true story!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      I totally agree. I’m reading Lilac Girls right now, and it makes me think about reading Night in 8th grade, and how those descriptions of Holocaust concentration camp deaths were so brutal and terrible, but now reading about babies torn away from their mothers in that book seems almost harder for me to read now than when I was little. I think we often think that little kids have fewer images and reference points for things, so one scary book can be really terrifying (and I think that definitely can be true) but then as adults sometimes because we have so many images and experiences we fill in the details in scary parts so much that they become really overwhelming and much more vivid and disturbing. It’s so hard to know how a book or a passage will affect someone!

  4. Thank you, sweet Amy. You’ve been such a wonderful cheerleader for my book. My editor was a huge Blue Dolphins fan. It’s one of the reasons she wanted to acquire May B.

    I hope you’re well!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      I’m so excited about Jasper!! I’ve pre-ordered 🙂 I’m doing well–a bit more momming these days than writing, but he’s sleeping right now and I’m writing, so it happens just slowly–I’m finding that books do grow more slowly than children. But perhaps when Jackson becomes more interested in reading books than chewing on them or throwing them he’ll understand my wanting to write them!

      • He’ll get it! My now fifteen-year-old kept a calendar journal as a little guy. Long before I was published, he drew pictures of me writing books. <3 Jackson will understand!

        Can't wait for you to meet Jasper. He is really a special kid.

        • Amy Rogers Hays says:

          Oh my that’s so sweet! That makes me teary just thinking about that. Jackson has gotten really interested in pens lately, I could defiantly see him getting into writing and drawing next to me.

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