Sara L. Schwebel (ed.) and Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Readers Edition

Cover for Island of Blue Dolphins, featuring an image of an indigenous woman

Sara L. Schwebel (Ed.) and Scott O’Dell. Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Readers Edition. Oakland, CA, University of California Press, 2016. 256 p. 9780520289376. US$29.95, £24.00. (Hardcover and eBook).

It’s surprising that one of the most important children’s books of the twentieth century has only recently started receiving the critical attention it deserves. Sara L. Schwebel’s excellent Complete Readers Edition offers a significant contribution to a growing body of book histories about classic children’s literature texts and their impacts on generations of readers. Used by countless American K-12 schools and public libraries from the 1960s onward, O’Dell’s historical fiction robinsonade about the real-life Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, Juana Maria, has been seen as a critical multicultural, feminist young adult text despite some very real concerns about historical accuracy, vanishing Indian tropes, and racism.

The main protagonist of the book is a young girl, Karana, who is left alone on one of the Channel Islands (San Nicolas Island) after her tribe decides to leave for mainland California. The book covers a wide range of important historical issues, including indigenous contact with Europeans, isolation, destruction of the environment, and survival, along with a young girl embracing what at that time were traditional male tasks of hunting, making weapons, and canoeing. Published as a children’s novel in 1960, Island went on to win the Newbery Medal and has surpassed sales of any other Newbery winning title and all other children’s historical novels.

Schwebel’s lengthy introduction to the Complete Readers Edition sets the stage for a contemporary and detailed reading of Island while also providing readers with the background behind this pivotal book, including how the Lone Woman story was disseminated since the nineteenth century, how O’Dell came to write the book, and what sources he used. Most importantly for SHARPists, the introduction details both the writing and editing of Island as well as its initial reception in popular culture. While telling the history of how Island of the Blue Dolphins came to be, Schwebel raises interesting critical questions such as how settler colonialism and stereotypes of Native Americans influenced O’Dell’s text and what it means for a book to be “doubly historical.”

In addition, the Complete Readers Edition also reprints O’Dell’s text in-full with annotations that cover the history of the Lone Woman story, linguistics, facts about the indigenous peoples of the Channel Islands, and geography, among other topics. Schwebel also has included two excised chapters never published and an additional two scholarly essays that look at the archeology of both the Lone Woman story and Island of the Blue Dolphins and another that situates Island within legal frameworks of land rights, tribal recognition, and repatriation.

By focusing on the interdisciplinary aspects to the writing, publishing, and reception of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Schwebel makes a noteworthy addition to the fields of book history and children’s literature, providing readers with the historical context behind not only the novel but also the problems associated with the telling of Native American culture and history in American popular culture.

Suzan Alteri, University of Florida