Children’s literature often flies under the academic radar, and as a lover of children’s books (the older, the better), I am grateful to anyone who dips their scholarly sleeves into the waters of this genre. In this “reader’s edition” of Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Sara L. Schwebel undertakes the task of writing a scholarly study of this classic children’s novel.
For those who’ve never read Island of the Blue Dolphins or who, like me, read it so long ago they’ve forgotten it, allow me to review. O’Dell’s novel tells the story of 12-year-old Karana, who is left behind with her younger brother when the rest of their tribe sails for the mainland. After her brother is killed by the island’s wild dogs, Karana is truly alone and must fend for herself, finding food, building shelter, making clothes, and protecting herself from the dogs. But Karana does more than simply survive. She thrives. By the time she leaves the island, she’s acquired several animal friends and has grown into a woman with a fully developed sense of her own abilities and capabilities.
The novel is based on the story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. For 18 years in the mid 1800’s, this woman lived alone on the outermost of the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast. O’Dell made his heroine younger (to appeal to a child audience) and filled in many gaps in the sources which he consulted, constructing a plausible explanation for her being stranded alone on the island as well as the details of how she spent the days and years of her isolation. The result of O’Dell’s imaginative re-creation of the Lone Woman was a compelling story of survival and forgiveness that garnered a Newbery Medal in 1961 and has remained popular with teachers, librarians, and young people (and thus in print) ever since.
In her introduction, Schwebel details the novel’s commercial success, its many awards, and its continuing popularity. “By any measure, then,” she writes, “Island of the Blue Dolphins ranks among the most important children’s books of the twentieth century.” Given the book’s importance, Schwebel has written this critical edition “to enable new generations of readers—both children and adults—to encounter a beloved novel with fresh insights generated by twenty-first century research.”
And it’s clear that Schwebel has done her research. A literature professor at the University of South Carolina, she has looked closely at the three extant drafts of the novel, painstakingly attempting to re-create O’Dell’s writing and revision process. In addition, she has carefully studied O’Dell’s sources and researched the history of San Nicolas Island, its native peoples in general, and the Lone Woman in particular. Her introduction also includes sections on the “doubly historical conundrum” of the novel’s setting and its composition, the writing and editing of the novel, marketing and selling it, its reception in K-12 classrooms, and the 1964 film version. She concludes with 13 pages of endnotes, many of them pursuing additional facts and ideas that she couldn’t fit into the main text of the introduction, and a four-page list of published sources. The text of the original published version of Island of the Blue Dolphins, with copious footnotes, comprises the bulk of the book.
Despite Schwebel’s careful research—or perhaps because of it—her book suffers from three interrelated problems. First, its audience is unclear. Her stated audience is the “new generations of readers—both children and adults”—who either already love this novel or will come to love it when they read it. But that audience is far too broad, and Schwebel clearly doesn’t intend this book for children: it is a rare child who would willingly wade through a dense and academic 63-page introduction to any novel, regardless of how beloved it is. Among adults, many who read this novel again and again are teachers, but Schwebel’s academic tone (not to mention the hundreds of footnotes) will be off-putting to the elementary school teachers who would most benefit from her research. It’s likely the only audiences who might have the patience to read this book are book reviewers and Schwebel’s fellow academics, provided they have an interest in either children’s literature or Native American cultures (preferably both).
Second, the book’s stated purpose (“to enable new generations of readers to encounter a beloved novel with fresh insights generated by twenty-first century research”) is too broad, and the introduction therefore lacks a clearly articulated thesis. In the introductory section on O’Dell’s sources, for instance, Schwebel launches immediately into O’Dell’s “genre expectations” and then delves straight in to his sources—without ever pausing to let readers know where she’s headed. About two-thirds of the way through this section she mentions “settler colonialism” and the “vanishing Indian” trope, but she only spends two and a half pages unpacking these (big!) ideas before leaving them behind to pursue the idea of the novel’s heroine as “a girl Robinson Crusoe.” No doubt these ideas are linked in Schwebel’s mind, but she leaps about from idea to idea so rapidly, and without transition or orientation, that by the end of the section I hardly knew how I’d gone from O’Dell’s genre expectations to vanishing Indians to a discussion of parental anxiety about Robinson Crusoe and the subsequent trend toward abridged children’s versions—let alone why. I’m a patient reader, so I can (try to) connect the dots, but even after doing so, Schwebel’s point in all this remained murky. I suspect her ambivalence stems from competing concerns: the novel’s portrayal of Native Americans, while progressive for the time of its composition, is now problematic, especially among academics and others who read for subtext, but Schwebel doesn’t want to alienate those “new generations of readers” who love this novel.
The third of the book’s interrelated problems is its organizing principle, which seemed to be “let’s include it because it’s related to the novel or the island or the people who lived there.” For example, the introduction’s final section critiques the movie version of the book, not for its divergence from the novel but for its casting and location choices. Doubtless those choices need to be critiqued, but they are only tangentially related to O’Dell’s novel and add nothing to the discussion of it. Further, after the introduction, which includes a section on the writing and editing of the novel, comes an essay (by Schwebel) analyzing the novel’s three extant drafts. It’s unclear why this essay was not shortened and folded into the similarly titled section of the introduction—or omitted altogether. In its current location, it feels tacked on as an afterthought—more information that must be included simply because it’s about the novel.
There is much in this Complete Reader’s Edition that is both interesting and valuable, but well-written and well-organized analysis of the research, with a clear sense of both the intended audience and the purpose of the criticism, is also needful. Still, despite the book’s flaws, I’m grateful for the attention Schwebel has paid to Island of the Blue Dolphins, and I hope that other scholars will follow suit. Serious, in-depth consideration of children’s literature can be as rewarding as any other field of literary study.