Born: May 23, 1898
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California
Died: October 15, 1989
Place of death: Mount Kisco, New York
Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960)
The Black Pearl (1967)
Sing Down the Moon (1970)
Scott O'Dell was the award-winning author of several young adult novels. He received the Newbery Medal for Island of the Blue Dolphins in 1961 and Newbery Honors for The King's Fifth (1966), The Black Pearl (1967), and Sing Down the Moon (1970). In 1972, he received what many believe to be the most distinguished award in children's literature: the Hans Christian Anderson Award. Island of the Blue Dolphins was made into a successful feature film in 1964, and The Black Pearl was adapted for film in 1977. In 1982, O'Dell established the annual Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. The author told tales in which characters, often women, triumphed over adversity. “The only reason I write is to say something,” he told Conrad Wesselhoeft for the New York Times. “I've forsaken adults because they're not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.”
Scott O'Dell was born Odell Gabriel Scott in Los Angeles, California, on May 23, 1898. O'Dell was a descendent of Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe (1820), and excelled in school from a young age. After graduation, he attended Occidental College in California, the University of Wisconsin, Stanford University, and the University of Rome, though he never earned a degree. In 1918, he enlisted in the US Army but did not complete training in time to serve in World War I. After college, O'Dell critiqued scripts for Paramount Studios and worked as a cameraman and technical director. It was the era of silent films, and O'Dell worked on the classic films Ben Hur (1925) and The Sheik (1921). For the next thirty years, O'Dell worked a variety of different jobs as an editor for the Los Angeles Daily News and a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. He wrote novels for adults (his first, Woman of Spain, was published in 1934) and even tried his hand as an orange farmer. While writing a history of California called Country of the Sun (1957), O'Dell came across the story of a girl named Juana Maria, or the “Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island,” who was a member of the Nicoleño tribe. She served as the inspiration for his most famous novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960). After the success of Island of the Blue Dolphins, O'Dell devoted his career to writing novels for young adults.
O'Dell began going by “Scott O'Dell” after a typesetter accidently applied that name to an article he had written. O'Dell liked it and then had it legally changed in the early 1920s. He married Elizabeth Hall, a psychologist, writer, and magazine editor, in the 1960s. Hall completed and published O'Dell's unfinished manuscript, Thunder Rolling in the Mountains (1992) after O'Dell died of prostate cancer on October 15, 1989. O'Dell and Hall had two children and seven grandchildren.
O'Dell did not set out to write a book for children. His idea for Island of the Blue Dolphins was born from a story he had read about a young American Indian girl called Juana Maria and his own anger at a growing number of hunters killing off the wildlife in the California community in which he lived. He wanted to tell a story that brought together themes of reverence for all life and forgiveness. In O'Dell's story, a twelve-year-old Nicoleño girl named Karana...
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and her brother escape their tribe's massacre, but her brother soon dies after being attacked by feral dogs. Karana learns to survive on her own on a desert island off the coast of Southern California. Although she tries to destroy the pack of dogs that killed her brother, when one dog refuses to die, she decides to forgive the animal and nurse it back to health. Over the ensuing years, she develops special abilities that allow her to communicate with animals, and eighteen years after her exile, she sees a ship approaching her island and feels compelled to return to the mainland.
The story of the real Juana Maria is more ambiguous, but O'Dell's fictional rendering of Juana Maria's life was an immediate best seller, and what his account lacked in historical accuracy, it made up for in a different kind of truth. O'Dell was able to take stories from the past—from a pearl diver in Mexico to the story of a young Navaho girl escaping Spanish slavers in Sing Down the Moon (1970)—and make them immediate and compelling to modern readers.
- Crawford, Richard. “‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ Was Spawned near Julian.” San Diego Yesterday. San Diego Union-Tribune, 19 Mar. 2011. Web. 25 May 2015. <http://www.sandiegoyesterday.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/ScottODell.pdf>.
- McDowell, Edwin. “Scott O'Dell, a Children's Author of Historical Fiction, Dies at 91.” New York Times. New York Times, 17 Oct. 1989. Web. 25 May 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/1989/10/17/obituaries/scott-o-dell-a-children-s-author-of-historical-fiction-dies-at-91.html>.
- Wesselhoeft, Conrad. “‘Blue Dolphins’ Author Tells Why He Writes for Children.” New York Times. New York Times, 15 Apr. 1984. Web. 25 May 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/1984/04/15/nyregion/blue-dolphins-author-tells-why-he-writes-for-children.html>.
- “Elizabeth Hall: Author, Psychologist, Voyager.” Elizabethhall. Elizabeth Hall, 11 June 2009. Web. 25 May 2015. <http://www.elizabethhall.net/biography.htm>.
- Folkart, Burt A. “Scott O'Dell, 91: ‘Writer of Books That Children Read.’” LA Times. Los Angeles Times, 18 Oct. 1989. Web. 25 May 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/1989-10-18/news/mn-50_1_o-dell-books>.
- McNamee, Gregory. “Appreciations: Scott O'Dell's ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins.’” Kirkus. Kirkus, 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 25 May 2015. <https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/appreciations-scott-odells-island-blue-dolphins/#continue_reading_post>.
- Reynolds, Christopher. “Once Upon a Time: There Was a Little Girl Stranded on a Channel Island.” LA Times. Los Angeles Times, 13 Dec. 1990. Web. 25 May 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/1990-12-13/news/vl-8616_1_channel-islands>.