In this classic survival story, Karana learns to fend for herself on an island after her tribe leaves for the mainland.
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2010 (originally published 1960). 192 pages.
Reading Level: Ages 10-12
Recommended For: Ages 10 and up
Karana’s tribe has lived on the Island of the Blue Dolphins for generations. When the Aleuts come again this year to hunt otter, Karana and the rest of her people are vigilant, afraid the Aleuts will cheat them out of their agreed price. Vigilance doesn’t always prevent violence, though, and many of the village’s men (including Karana’s father) die trying to protect their share of the otter pelts. A village like Karana’s needs its men for protection, for work, and for hunting; the ensuing year is a hard one, and finally Karana’s tribe decides they must leave their beloved island. All are aboard a white man’s ship from the mainland when they Karana’s younger brother running down the beach. He’d forgotten something and dashed back to get it. Karana leaps off the boat, refusing to leave her brother behind. But the boat can’t wait. Together, the two children plan to fend for themselves and survive until the next boat comes. Surely their people will send another boat back the next summer.
But a boat doesn’t come the next summer. And Karana’s brother dies in a wild dog attack. Karana ends up spending many years alone on her island. She builds shelter, learns to find food, befriends wild animals, defends herself, and even makes beautiful things. When a boat finally does arrive to bring her to the mainland, she has to think hard about whether she will actually leave the island.
Based on the true story of a woman who lived alone on an island off the coast of California in the mid-1800s, this historical fiction survival tale has stood the test of time. Survival tales are marked by the protagonist’s ingenuity and resourcefulness as well as a dash of danger. Island of the Blue Dolphins certainly delivers those. O’Dell’s Newbery novel is 60 years old this year, and it reads a bit like a 60-year-old story. Slower and more contemplative than many newer stories, it is still worth reading.
Island of the Blue Dolphins also hints at what makes us human: is it the company of other social beings? Why does Karana delight so in the company of animals who can interact with her? Why is Karana driven to make beautiful things, not merely functional things? Where does she get her hope and future-thinking from? She is able to reason from what she observed her tribe doing in order to adapt the same methods to her own survival. These are not traits shared by animals, certainly not in equal measure to humans. If the topic comes up with your young teens, probe a bit and see if a story like this helps them articulate a little bit of the uniqueness of humanity, the apex of God’s creation.
- Karana’s father (and many other villagers) die in a conflict with the Aleuts. Karana’s brother dies in a wild dog attack. You may wish to save this book for ages 12 and up if your child is a sensitive young reader.
- Many discussion questions come up with this one! See the final paragraph of the review for some possibilities.
Overall Rating: 4/5
- Worldview Rating: 4/5
- Literary/Artistic Rating: 4/5
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