Review of “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell

I knew this book won the Newbery Medal, but I had no idea it was based on a true story. More about that anon….

Karana is a twelve-year-old girl living on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, so named by the native tribe who lived there for both its shape and some of its many denizens. (Located off the coast of California, this same island was known to the Spanish as La Isla de San Nicolas.)

The island was often invaded by otter pelt hunters, who stole from the natives and depleted the otter population. When Karana’s father, the tribe’s chief, tried to organize a resistance, he was killed along with many other warriors. Those who remained decided to abandon the island. At the last moment, as their rescue ship was leaving, Karana saw that her little brother got left behind, and she jumped over the ship to go to him. The ship with her people never returned for her, and her little brother was killed almost immediately by feral dogs. She was on her own.

This book is the story of how Karana survived over many years, until missionaries came to the island and rescued her. In an Afterword, the author explains:

“The girl Robinson Crusoe whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853, and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas.”

Karana’s story is remarkable. She had to make shelter, and learn to make weapons to kill food and to protect herself. She had to adapt to the loneliness and hopelessness of all those years of abandonment. She made pets out of some of the dogs and birds, made jewelry out of stones and dresses out of cormorant feathers, and learned how to live in and of nature with no one to help her.

The author tells us that Father Gonzales of Santa Barbara Mission, who befriended her after her rescue, never learned her language; they communicated only with signs. In a sense her solitary existence never really ended.

Evaluation: For me, this story was remarkable but also sad. I should note that the author rarely depicts Karana as being sad; in fact, his re-creation of her existence includes many moments of triumph over adversity and happiness from her friendship with the creatures native to the island. But I was sad for the life she missed by trying to rescue her brother; and I was sad for the many days she sat on the mesa and watched for ships; and I was sad that her rescue, seemingly so full of promise, didn’t reunite her with her people. Although the author does not even mention this in his Afterword, the real character on whom Karana is based died only weeks after arriving in Santa Barbara. Nevertheless, I can see readers having the opposite reaction to mine, and focusing on her incredible achievements. And the author does talk about her adaptive techniques in details that are consistently interesting and inspirational. In 1976 the Children’s Literature Association named this story one of the ten best American children’s books of the past 200 years.

Rating: 3/5

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers, 1960


Newbery Medal (1961)
Lewis Carroll Shelf Award (1961)
William Allen White Children’s Book Award, 1963
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (1962)
Children’s Literature Association: “11 Best American Children’s Books of the Past 200 Years”, 1976
Omar’s Book Award, 1985
School Library Journal, Books That Shaped the Century, 2000


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Book Review, Challenge and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Review of “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell

  1. JoAnn says:

    At least two of my daughters read this, although it was never a favorite. Thanks for the review – I didn’t know it was based on a true story, either.

  2. Sandy says:

    I had no idea this was based on a true story. My best friend in grade school read it, and I remember she was depressed afterwards, so I never picked it up. It is interesting how some find the story inspirational, and others find it desolate.

  3. Amanda says:

    We read this in sixth grade and I don’t remember a thing about it. I remember being unimpressed/bored at the time. I think I’d like it better as an adult.

  4. stacybuckeye says:

    I remember reading this for my YA Lit class in college and enjoying it, but not loving it.

  5. Aarti says:

    I remember reading this book when I was younger. I think we have a copy at home. I really liked it at the time.

    Why is it that so many children’s books are about surviving in the wilderness?

  6. bermudaonion says:

    I had no idea this was based on a true story. Didn’t they make a movie of it?

  7. Jenny says:

    Wow, I had absolutely no clue this was based on a true story. I remember not being crazy about Scott O’Dell’s books when I was a kid – maybe I’d have liked this one better if I’d known it was based on a real girl. How terrible that she died anyway! 😦

  8. Valerie says:

    My first thought on seeing this was, “I read that one before, but I don’t rememeber the story”, but on thinking about it some more I’m not sure I actually did read it. Survival stories were not my type of reading back when I was in elementary school.

    I’m wondering what she died of? I agree that it’s sad that she died so soon after rescue, but on the other hand it makes me wonder what kind of life she’d have had if she survived to adulthood and beyond.

  9. nymeth says:

    I think my interest in the history of children’s literature is reason enough to read this. Even if I don’t agree, I want to see why it was considered one of the ten best!

  10. Thanks for sharing. It does sound very sad, but I guess children might see it differently. I had no idea this was based on a true story — incredibly interesting.

  11. I remember reading this in elementary school and considering it a favorite. I haven’t thought of it in years. i also had no idea this was a true story !! Thanks for the review – it is reminding me I just might want to pull out some of my old favorites to read soon !

  12. Jenny and Valerie,

    I really tried to find out what she died of! My theory is that it was either exposure to disease for which she had no immunity, much as happened to many native peoples when the colonists came, or it was a “broken heart” – not literally, but you know, you’re depressed, you don’t eat anymore, etc.

  13. Jenners says:

    I never read this and I’m sorry I didn’t … I might have to read it as it sounds amazing. Actually, I would like to read a straightforward rather than fictionalized account of her life. I think there is much much sadness here. Certainly she is to be admired but the core of sadness is huge. Imagine losing your entire family and then being abandoned by your people. I’m not surprised she died soon after being “rescued.” I’m sure it was too much of a shock in so many ways.

  14. Margot says:

    What an incredible story of survival. I’m sure it would appeal to the children I know as well as myself. I’m glad you found it.

  15. softdrink says:

    I was fascinated by this book when I was a kid, because the island is just down the coast from where I live. For years, every time we drove past Santa Barbara on our way to Orange County I would remember the book and look for the island.

  16. Alyce says:

    I remember reading this and being very sad too. It really wasn’t one of my favorites. I didn’t know the backstory, so I appreciate you telling us about what happened to her after the island.

  17. Richard says:

    I remember being a big fan of this book when I was a kid, Jill. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but I picked up a pamphlet about the real life “Lost Woman of San Nicolás” the last time I visited the Santa Barbara Mission. They were selling the pamphlets in the Mission’s gift shop as a local history sort of memento.

  18. Staci says:

    I haven’t read this one but my son hated it with a passion.

  19. theduckthief says:

    I loved this book as a child! I have a worn copy sitting in storage and enjoyed it much more than “The Hatchett”, another survival story.

  20. Toni Gomez says:

    I loved this book as a child. I read it more than once. I think I was too young to get the sadness of it. And I really was an oversensitive child. I would love to re-read.

  21. Wjitney says:

    I read this in 4th grade and we watched the movie. It was great! I love that book but the movie isn’t as good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.