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Newbery Buzz #2: Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

We’re back for our second Newbery Buzz discussion of 2019. Last week, Hayley and Janie discussed Tumble and Blue. This week, Hayley and I (Betsy) discuss Orphan Island. Since we haven’t reviewed Orphan Island yet, we’ll start with a brief summary of the book.

(Don’t miss our final paragraphs in which Hayley and I wax eloquent on our other favorite island stories–this is what happens when bibliophiles get to gabbing….)

Orphan Island is a strange island peopled by children who are stair-stepped in age: each year, a new young orphan arrives and the oldest orphan leaves; the next oldest orphan becomes the one in charge, and he or she takes care of the newest arrival—their “care.” It’s always been that way, and it appears that it always will be. Until Jinny starts to question why. She’s just begun her year of being the oldest, and she knows she will have to leave when the boat comes again with a new orphan. Why does a new child arrive each year? Who is sending them? Who built the cabins they live in? Why does she have to leave everything she’s known? Through Jinny’s eyes, the reader learns along with Jinny’s new care, Ess, how the children feed themselves, govern themselves, know how to read, and that they bathe in the sea. As Jinny reaches puberty, her thoughts grow more tempestuous and questioning until she decides… not to leave. It turns out, though, that not leaving has disastrous effects for her—and also for her island companions as well as the very island itself.

Betsy: Hayley, you and I both read this book this past fall. It’s getting a lot of buzz in the children’s lit world, but both you and I are content to let this one slip by. What was your initial impression of Orphan Island?

Hayley: It’s a lyrical, evocative story -with deeply troubling undertones as the story progresses.  The whole idea of the island, as the story unfurls, is sinister and leaves a ton of unanswered questions, let alone frustration.

Betsy: You’re right, Hayley! There are so many unanswered questions. As the book progresses, it seems that questions accumulate more rapidly than answers; this is just as true for the reader as it is for Jinny. I enjoyed the writing itself so much—the phrasings, the sentence construction, the world-building—all the nerdy English teacher things. And yet, the skill with which Snyder wields her pen is precisely what contributes to that underlying send of foreboding because the reader is so fully immersed in the story.

What do you think the strongest elements in the book are? In other words, why would an awards committee consider this book over others?

Hayley: I think the storytelling is one of the strongest elements. There’s something about this book and its plot that makes an impression beyond one reading. Months later, I haven’t forgotten the island, the mysterious boat, Jinny’s tempestuous emotions, Ess learning to swim…. That element is hard to articulate: easier though is the fact it’s a book that adults like.  It’s thoughtful and “deep” -in a way I would argue goes against its appeal for younger readers.

It also is a book that questions authority and structure, while weaving in the angst of coming of age.  (Let alone it seems to think children are innately good enough to have their own utopian community governed by a tween!)  I see these as more shortcomings than strengths, but I think they might be viewed more favorably by an awards committee.

Betsy: My 12-year-old daughter read this book, too, and I was curious to see if she’d pick up on those same issues of questioning authority and troubling unanswered questions. Even more, would she take the idea of a utopian community of kids governed by someone roughly her own age to be amazing or too unrealistic? As adult readers, we have to step outside ourselves and try to imagine would the target audience enjoy this book? The target audience here is clearly girls like my daughter. And here’s what she said:

I think it is a good story mainly because of Jinny’s decision to not go back and to keep caring for Ess. Most of the people were warning her to go, but she thought that Ess needed her. Ess should have grown up and not needed her, but Jinny was sure that everyone still needed her on the island.

Needless to say, this has prompted some interesting further discussions, and it also points to some of what you and I have been worrying over, Hayley, in terms of theme.

Hayley: Like your daughter, I liked Jinny’s decision. But it was frustrating to see her instinct to protect backfire in a way that brought harm to the island!

Betsy: Do you think this book has a real shot at the Newbery? Are there flaws or weaknesses that you think will keep it out of the running?

Hayley: I think it might, possibly.  But while Orphan Island is thought-provoking and literary, I think it doesn’t have enough “edge” to push it into a prime position.  Another book involving an island, Beyond the Bright Sea, has more potential. It’s also lyrical and thoughtful, but it has some strong themes of racial prejudice (and overcoming perceived prejudice, too) that I believe will give it more weight in the awards running.

Betsy: I think you’re right, Hayley. Despite the vague sense of foreboding we get from this book, it’s not quite political or edgy enough when compared with recent Newbery winners/honors. There is a scene in the story in which Jinny starts her period. She has been living on this island with no adult supervision or instruction, and it appears that she is completely baffled by this turn of events. It’s a rude shock to her (and to the young reader!), and presumably, if she’d chosen to leave the island, she would have been back on the mainland for this coming-of-age experience. But that scene might be edgy enough–and “authentic” enough–for this book to hold up against other titles like Beyond the Bright Sea. Unfortunately, I felt the scene was gratuitous in the sense that it automatically limits the book’s audience. Most middle grade boys will roll their eyes or feel uncomfortable with it, and many teachers/parents/librarians will pass over this book because of it. While it might be an important coming-of-age moment to discuss, we don’t always want those moments in our recreational reading.

Any closing thoughts to leave our readers with? Are there other “island stories” that are similar to this one but without the dark, unsettling undertones?

Hayley: Like you, I found the scene discussed above included far too much information, and it was jarring in its tone.  It’s enough to make some automatically rule it out! But, there are plenty of wonderful Island stories!  Growing up, I loved Carol Ryrie Brink’s Baby Island.  Two girls are stranded on an island, but they rescue some babies in the process.  This is light-hearted and definitely suitable for middle-grade readers. Then there’s Seacrow Island, by Astrid Lindgren – a lovely story about a Swedish family moving out to an island for the summer and falling in love with the island and islanders’ way of life.

Betsy, I know your family has been enjoying Swallows and Amazons.  The first couple are definitely centered around an island! And going back to the classics, revisit Voyage of the Dawn Treader for a wonderful island segment.  More obscure is Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, a wonderful adventure story of castaways on an island.  The one I read, and re-read the most growing up though was Swiss Family Robinson –improbable in its vast array of flora and fauna, but absolutely engaging in one family’s island saga.  Oh, and one more!  Gorgeous pictures and story are interwoven in James Gurney’s Dinotopia books: a scientist and his son in the 19th century are shipwrecked on an island where dinosaurs still exist and humans live alongside them.

Betsy: Those are great suggestions, Hayley! Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe are other classics that take place on islands. I remember falling in love with The Black Stallion and Island of the Blue Dolphins when I was a kid. Island of the Blue Dolphins would be an interesting comparison to Orphan Island since both deal with a young girl’s coming-of-age on an island without adults around; both girls also care for younger people.

As with most books worthy of “Newbery Buzz” discussions, we barely scratched the surface of the thematic elements in this book. There’s plenty of “discussion starter” material in this one, particularly along the lines of duty/responsibility, making decisions we don’t like, the place of order and rules, conformity v individualism, society v the individual, and more! If your tweens or teens have read this book, let us know in the comments what you thought!

Talk amongst yourselves...

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