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The Role of Reality in Children’s Literature: “Island of the Blue Dolphins:”

Updated on October 16, 2013
Scott O'Dell's "Island of the Blue Dolphins"
Scott O'Dell's "Island of the Blue Dolphins" | Source

Reality in Children’s Literature

Children’s literature offers young readers new perspectives on the world they live in. Authors provide different views of realistic situations, characters, time periods, and places. These realistic stories allow children mental experiences that can help shape their views of their world. Historical fiction offers the unique quality of allowing the reader a view into the past. Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Medal winning story “Island of the Blue Dolphins” tells the tale of a Native American girl marooned on a deserted island in the 1800’s. Along with a view of the past, this realistic story provides readers with vivid descriptions of Native American life in the Nicoleno tribe. Reality can play a vital role in children’s literature. Realism offers a credible point for children to explore new situations, characters, and places.

Scott O'Dell author of "Island of the Blue Dolphins"
Scott O'Dell author of "Island of the Blue Dolphins" | Source

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

Scott O’Dell’s 1960 children’s novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins” tells the fascinating story of a Native American girl who becomes stranded alone on a deserted island for eighteen years. The protagonist is twelve-year-old Karana. The story opens with Karana living with her Native American tribe, the Nicoleno, on an island called Ghalas-At off the coast of California. After a battle with another tribe her father is killed. Eventually the tribe decides to leave the island and find somewhere more hospitable to live. When the tribe leaves Karana is left behind with her little brother. After her brother is killed by wild dogs Karana is left completely alone. She survives alone on the island with only the island animals for companionship. Finally eighteen years later she is rescued and taken away from the island.

Family and Social Values

The story stresses the importance of family and community. When Karana’s six-year-old brother, Ramu, is left behind by the ship sent to save the tribe Karanu jumps overboard and swims back to him. Together they are stranded alone on the island. Karanu loved her brother and chose to stay with him rather than go on to a better situation. Social values are represented in the actions of Karanu and Ramu’s father, Chowig, who had been chief of the tribe. He fought for the rights of the community when they were being unfairly treated. He was killed in battle fighting for his people. The values of the tribe and the community were evident in the story. Kimki, the chief who was appointed following Chowig’s death, realized that the tribe would do better off the island. Kimki left to find a better land, set up a new community for his people, and then sent for them when he had a new home for them. The story offers children a story of family values, the importance of community, and resilience.

Bottlenose Dolphin
Bottlenose Dolphin | Source

Literary Devices and Structure

Scott O’Dell uses literary devices to build on the story. The story is told as a narrative by Karana of her experiences. This perspective allows readers a direct view into her experience. Personification of the animals in the story provide readers with the understanding of the young girl’s isolation and loneliness, that the animals become Karana’s family and only companionship, and provide interesting characters beyond Karana since for much of the story she is the only character. Symbolism is offered in the sails of the boats approaching the island. When ships that are seen as dangerous are approaching the sails are red, when friendly or helpful ships approach the sails are white. Red is often symbolic of danger, blood, or war and white is symbolic of purity, innocence, and good (Rohrer, 2012). Another symbol offered in the story is the dolphin. In some Native American cultures the dolphin is seen as a positive omen, saving those lost at sea (Native Languages of America, 2012). Karana sees a dolphin when she jumps off the ship to return to the island with her brother, she also sees one as the ship rescues her and takes her away from her isolation on the island.

Juana Maria known as the "Lone Woman of San Nicoleas Island"
Juana Maria known as the "Lone Woman of San Nicoleas Island" | Source

Historical Relevance

Scott O’Dell based the story “Island of the Blue Dolphins” on a true event. A Native American woman of the Nicoleno tribe was marooned on an island off the coast of California for eighteen years, from 1835 to 1853 (Kirkwood Public Library, n.d.). O’Dell researched the story of the woman, the tribe, and the area and recreated the woman’s struggle in his story. The story contains factual information about different tribes who were known to hunt in that area, such as the Aleuts and Nicolenos (Kirkwood Public Library, n.d.). Although the author used his imagination to describe the stranded girl’s adventures, he used information about animals that inhabited the island region to create a realistic scenario.

Based on Fact

Since this story is based on a true story readers can appreciate how the protagonist, Karana, could possibly live through the struggles and triumph over adversity. The realistic setting and characters create a sense of reality in the story making the fiction aspects more believable. For example Karana single-handedly fights off wild dog packs and then befriends one she had tried to kill. The image of a young girl fighting alone in this situation seems unlikely, yet when it is introduced with the realism of the tribe and the girl’s upbringing the situation becomes more believable. The story offers the perspective of a child having the strength to master her surroundings and care for herself. O’Dell provides enough realism to portray this as a reasonable and believable story. He recreated the story of a lone girl who was abandoned for eighteen years on a deserted island by using facts gathered about the woman this actually happened to, known as Juana Maria (Rasmussen, n.d.).

Plaque Commemorating Juana Maria of the Nicoleno Tribe
Plaque Commemorating Juana Maria of the Nicoleno Tribe | Source

Effective Story-telling

The realism in the story and basis on real events shape a view into a different time and culture. The protagonist reveals how her early upbringing in the tribe and being unaffected by outside influences plays out. Readers get an inside view into untouched Native American life and survival in the wild. O’Dell used detailed research on the area, tribes, and the life of the real marooned woman to shape this fictional work (Kirkwood Public Library, n.d.). His research provides a realistic historic account of events that could have taken place. Since no one could verbally communicate with the woman who actually lived through this experience O’Dell did his best to recreate the story (Rasmussen, n.d.). The historical facts bring credibility to the story.

Scott O’Dell’s Newbury Award winning story “The Island of the Blue Dolphins” serves as an excellent example of historical fiction. The realism in the story provides credibility to the amazing experiences of young Karana as she fights to survive alone on the island. The story offers a strong female protagonist, and the structure using first person narrative allows readers a first-hand view of Karana’s experiences. O’Dell used the real life situation of a Native American woman stranded on an island to create this touching story of resilience. The factual information builds a strong foundation for readers to experience the fictional story and provide readers with a view into Native American life in the 1800’s.


Kirkwood Public Library. (n.d.). Background about the book: Island of the blue dolphin. Retrieved from

Native Languages of America. (2012). Native American Indian dolphin mythology. Retrieved from

O’Dell, S. (1960). Island of the blue dolphins. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Rasmussen, C. (n.d.). Lone woman of San Nicholas island. Retrieved from

Rohrer, K. (2012). Symbolism of color: Using color for meaning. Retrieved from

Russell, D.L. (2009). Literature for children: A short introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn Bacon


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