The Island of the Blue Dolphins

March 11, 2016
The Island of the Blue Dolphins Book Cover The Island of the Blue Dolphins
The Island of the Blue Dolphins, #1
Scott O'Dell
Historical Fiction
HMH Books for Young Readers
October 29th, 1990
Ted Levin

Far off the coast of California looms a harsh rock known as the island of San Nicholas. Dolphins flash in the blue waters around it, sea otter play in the vast kep beds, and sea elephants loll on the stony beaches.

Here, in the early 1800s, according to history, an Indian girl spent eighteen years alone, and this beautifully written novel is her story. It is a romantic adventure filled with drama and heartache, for not only was mere subsistence on so desolate a spot a near miracle, but Karana had to contend with the ferocious pack of wild dogs that had killed her younger brother, constantly guard against the Aleutian sea otter hunters, and maintain a precarious food supply.

More than this, it is an adventure of the spirit that will haunt the reader long after the book has been put down. Karana's quiet courage, her Indian self-reliance and acceptance of fate, transform what to many would have been a devastating ordeal into an uplifting experience. From loneliness and terror come strength and serenity in this Newbery Medal-winning classic.

The Island of the Blue Dolphins is a Newbery Medal winning historical fiction middle-grade novel. Our story describes the journey of Karana who is accidentally stranded on an island all alone for 18 years. We watch Karana grow, adapt, and change in a captivating survival novel.

OCA Channel Islands‘Dell based The Island of the Blue Dolphins on the true story of Juana Maria. This Nicoleno tribe (CA) native was left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas island between 1835 and 1853. She was the last surviving member of her tribe when she was discovered alone on one of the channel islands 60 miles off the Los Angeles coast. Her story, originally a blip in history with little renown, caught the eye of Scott O’Dell. His immaculate research was the start of this Newbery Award Winner.

For the first time, I began to wonder if the ship would ever return. I wondered about this as I pried the shells off the rocks, and I would stop and look fearfully at the empty sea that stretched away further than my eyes could reach.

Legend has it that a party of Alaskan otter hunters arrived at the island and massacred most of the Nicoleno tribe after a tribe member was accused of murdering one of the Alaskan hunters. This story reached the Santa Barbara Mission who decided to sponsor a rescue mission. When the rescuer’s arrived in November 1835, a storm set in and they had to leave without Juana Maria or risk everyone perishing. Juana Maria’s existence was slowly becoming legend. The Mission sent people to locate her, but they never succeeded.

island of the blue dolphins juanita mariaIn autumn 1853, a fur trader’s crew finally found evidence of someone living on the island. Upon exploration they discovered Juana Maria. She was living in a hut constructed with whale bones and was wearing a skirt made of cormorant feathers. They returned her to the mainland where she only survived another seven weeks, overdosing on the nutrients she had lacked for so many years.

With this history explored, The Island of the Blue Dolphins is a much stronger story than it would be alone. The truth behind O’Dell’s words reinforces the possibilities of survival and how challenging it can be not only to be alone in the world, but to break barriers established by centuries of religious and cultural establishment. You can also see the care O’Dell took to research his subject. In reviewing the history it’s easier to identify that this isn’t some made-up story during the era of children’s survival-themed books– this is a true piece of historical fiction.

Dolphins are a good omen. It made my happy to have them swimming around the canoe, and though my hands had begun to bleed from the chafing of the paddle, just watching them made me forget the pain. I was very lonely before they appeared, but not I felt that I had friends with me and did not feel the same.

The edition I read contained beautiful watercolor illustrations by Ted Lewin. These full-page glossy images helped better immerse me in Karana’s world. Without them, I certainly would have struggled to visualize her ethnicity and the island upon which she lived. It was the  highlight of each chapter of the novel when I ran into these images. They helped immerse me much more into Karana’s plight.

island of the blue dolphinsPoster_Karana

Karana as depicted in a 1964 Universal Pictures film

To the intended age group, Karana is an addictive character. Abandoned on her own, she makes shelter, gathers food, creates tools and weapons (fighting against religious beliefs that women with weapons is bad luck), teaches herself to hunt, befriends wild animals to curb her loneliness, and struggles for survival– ultimately to see herself all the way to her freedom. She is an incredibly strong woman from a culture where women were not expected to have that sort of strength. She easily could have just rolled over and given up.

That said, I wasn’t always engaged in Karana’s story. Mostly, this is due to O’Dell’s pacing and writing style. I felt like it was a lot of “this happened, then this happened.” We had a lot of action in the beginning of the novel, only to watch Karana live out her days in the remainder of the pages. I wasn’t bored, but I was never aching to continue reading. As this book was part of a re-reading challenge, I think this is a major reason I stalled out on the challenge. I struggled to read this book in a timely fashion, always reaching for something else when it was time to read.

Regardless of my opinions, this is still a timeless classic. I strongly recommend it to all 10-14-year-olds. Particularly those who are interested in survival stories and strong female protagonists.

3 stars


  • Ashlee March 22, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    In elementary school this book was one of my favorites. Ever. I’ve tried rereading it in the past year or so but stalled out. It’s hard when there are so many other books to read!

    • Jackie B March 22, 2016 at 8:37 pm

      I completely agree there are many books to read. Re-reading it as an adult was… a little disappointing, but also very enlightening. This is part of a quest I have to read all the Newbery Award winners. I feel like I need to re-read the ones I read as a child to properly compare them all.

  • M @ A Blog Of One's Own September 30, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    I don’t know how I would feel about this book today, but when we read it in school and I was about 12 I guess, I absolutely loved it. Although I’m not sure if we talked about the fact that this was based on a true story. If we did, I forgot about it, so thank you for pointing that out 🙂

    • Jackie B October 2, 2016 at 10:36 am

      I also read it in school around that time, and I was shocked that no one pointed that out to me. It would have made me appreciate the book more as a kid, since we were reading other survival books at the time (like Hatchet), and I was bored. Knowing a woman did this for real would have made this much more gripping for me.

Participate in the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: