Ideas for Group Discussions
When O'Dell wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins, he was not necessarily writing for young people. He had previously written for adults, and he chose to write about Karana at least in part because of his interest in American history and because her historical life appealed to him. His sometimes spare and direct style found itself a young audience for whom the details of Karanas survival was particularly inviting.
Much has been made out of his making a girl the focus of his tale of survival, although he had the compelling reason that the real-life figure had been female. One might generate a good discussion out of the issue of Karana's gender by emphasizing people's reaction to the focus on a girl, rather than why O'Dell did it. Another, more fruitful, course for a discussion to take would be to examine the historical details of the novel. The story is based on a real life, and the events take place on a real island off the southern Californian coast. What do we learn about Karana's people, about her era, about her island? Does O'Dell open our eyes to aspects of history that we had not before considered?
Another way of organizing a discussion is by comparing Island of the Blue Dolphins to its sequel Zia. The contrast between the too is stark, even troubling. Karana's heroic struggle to maintain body and sanity shifts to a nightmare of cruelty and corruption. The tale of her life ends in misery and anguish. Does this represent a shift in O'Dell's attitude toward his subject? Why write such an unhappy ending to the life of a protagonist most readers would admire?
1. Why would literary agents and editors want Karana to be a boy? Why, in turn, would O'Dell insist on her being a girl? Take a look at the history behind the plot of Island of the Blue Dolphins, as well as at the audience for the book.
2. How does Karana create a community for herself? How does she benefit from it?
3. Why does Karana often refrain from killing?
4. What inhibitions does Karana have to overcome in order to survive? What do these inhibitions tell about her culture?
5. What aspects of Island of the Blue Dolphins make it stand apart from other tales of castaways and people forced to survive in the natural world?