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Island of the Blue Dolphins

by Scott O’Dell

The Book Club Novel Guide outlines a complete theme-based unit with Book Club lesson plans focusing on Island of the Blue Dolphins.

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Below you will find a synopsis, further reading materials, discussion topics, and reviews that you might find useful during your teaching of Island of the Blue Dolphins.

A Synopsis

Karana’s solitary life on her island begins after Aleut hunters, in search of sea otter, attack Karana’s small tribe and kill most of its men. Demoralized, Karana’s people decide to leave the island when white men arrive and offer to take them to a new home on the mainland. As the ship is leaving, however, Karana discovers that her little brother, Ramo, has been left behind. She jumps overboard and returns to him. Not long after, Ramo is killed by wild dogs. Haunted by the loss of her people, Karana moves away from the village and begins to make weapons to ensure her safety—a difficult task because tribal law forbids women to make or use weapons.

Karana builds herself a house from scrounged materials and little by little learns how to hunt, fish, and repair canoes. She is also able to kill some of the wild dogs. After wounding the leader of the dog pack, however, she decides to nurse it back to health. The dog, whom she names Rontu, becomes her constant companion. As the seasons and years pass, Karana also tames several other wild animals, who become like a family to her.

One day, Aleut hunters arrive again. Among their party is a girl, Tutok, who befriends Karana. When the Aleuts leave, Karana’s loneliness is acute. She thinks not only of Tutok but of her older sister Ulape, who is far away. A tidal wave and an earthquake shake the island. Shortly after, a missionary ship stops at the island. Karana reflects on her happy days there, but her wish to hear human voices is stronger. She hopefully boards the ship.

Further Reading and Links

The following sites can be used to support and enrich the Book Club unit for Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.

About the Author and the Book

  • Scott O’Dell — This is the official website of the author. Its interesting and well-written pages provide biographical information about O’Dell, lists of his books and of the awards he won, and information about titles that have won the Scott O’Dell Award since 1984. The section “My Life & Books” shares the author’s own words about his life and writing.
  • A Visit with Scott O’Dell — This video, posted by the author’s granddaughter on YouTube, was produced in 1983. O’Dell discusses his daily writing routine and some of his well-known books.
  • Book Review — Read a review written by a former literature professor who compares O’Dell’s book to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
  • Common Sense Media — This review of the book gives it 4 out of 5 stars. See also user reviews and details about the book.

Learn about the Physical Location of the Novel

  • Channel Islands Photos and Links — San Nicolas Island is one of California’s Channel Islands. This site includes an overview of all the islands and a slideshow of San Nicolas Island. Links at the bottom of the main page provide access to further information.
  • Karana’s Cave — Read an article from the Los Angeles Times about a cave discovered on San Nicolas Island in 2012. A Navy archaeologist believes it to be the cave that sheltered the Lone Woman who inspired Karana’s character during her eighteen years alone on the island.
  • Channel Islands National Park — The park encompasses the islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. The site offers information about the ecology and wildlife of the park, which lies just north of San Nicolas Island. Read about the Lone Woman of San Nicolas and native inhabitants of the region. The NPS also has a site devoted entirely to Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Investigate the Marine Life of the Setting

  • Abalone — This site offers scientific facts about the abalone, its production, and its natural history. Details about the red abalone are also provided.
  • Common Bottlenose Dolphin — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides facts about bottlenose dolphins’ protected status, as well as their behavior, diet, range, and more. National Geographic also has a brief informative article about bottlenose dolphins, with links to a video and a photo gallery.
  • Double-crested Cormorant — Basic facts about the cormorant species most commonly found in North America is presented by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Audubon Society provides a similar article about this species of cormorant.
  • Giant Squid — The description of the giant squid at this site bears a strong resemblance to the devilfish of the novel. Scientists’ continued speculations about the giant squid are also explored in this article.
  • Elephant Seals — Although not located on San Nicolas, the elephant seals (also known as sea elephants) pictured here create a vivid impression of the animals’ size, strength, and physical features.
  • Sea Otter — This section of the Defenders of Wildlife website provides information about sea otters’ behavior, habitat, and history as a hunted and then protected marine mammal.

Find Out about the Characters of the Novel

  • The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island — The true story of the woman who survived on the island for eighteen years is told in this detailed and engaging article, “Juana Maria Better-than-Nothing: The Strange Tale of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island,” from public media outlet KCET.
  • Aleut People — This article at gives a brief overview of Aleut history and culture, including an illustration of a traditional dwelling.

Big Theme Questions

What things does a person really need to survive? How are these things different from what a person might want?

What personal qualities can help people cope with difficulties or dramatic changes in their lives?

What role do animals play in the lives of human beings? Consider both tame and wild animals.

Outline of Lesson Plan | Discussion Topics | Writing Prompts

The following section can be used to get discussions started in your classroom. It is based on the Lesson Plan within the Book Club Novel Guide for Island of the Blue Dolphins. The Lesson Plan includes blackline masters for students that support the writing prompts. The writing prompts provided are meant as suggestions only. As students become more comfortable with the Book Club format, they will inevitably have ideas and questions that go beyond the prompts. Consider giving students “free choice” as a log option. Book Club Reading Logs help students respond to literature and organize ideas as they participate in Book Club.

Chapters 1–2 | Language Conventions: Reading Log Entries

  • The author provides many descriptions of Karana’s island. Draw an outline map of the island and add places and details mentioned in the book.
  • Karana talks about the use of secret names among her people. If you had a secret name, what would it be and why?
  • In the last paragraph of Chapter 2, the author gives the reader a hint about what might happen next. How does he do this? What do you think will happen next?

Chapters 3–4 | Literary Elements: Foreshadowing

  • How did the author foreshadow the trouble with the Aleuts?
  • Using the descriptions given, draw a sea otter, labeling its features.
  • What happens when the Aleuts leave the island? How do you think this will affect Karana and her people?

Chapters 5–6 | Comprehension: Summarizing

  • Write a paragraph summarizing the story so far. Be sure to show relationships between events by using words such as then, because, and therefore.
  • How do Karana’s people react to the tragedy? Why do you think they leave the island?

Chapters 7–8 | Comprehension: Drawing Conclusions

  • Compare and contrast the items Karana packs with the items you would take if you had to leave your home in the next ten minutes.
  • Why does Ramo miss the boat? What does Karana do about this? Would you do this for anyone? Who, and why?
  • Near the end of Chapter 8, O’Dell once again foreshadows future events. What has happened? What do you think will happen next?

Chapter 9 | Literary Elements: Conflict

  • In Chapter 9, Karana confronts a tribal custom. What decision does she make and why?
  • Sequence the steps Karana used to make the spear. You may use a flowchart, a numbered list, or an illustrated chart.
  • Continue summarizing each chapter of the book.

Chapter 10 | Literary Elements: Characterization

  • What major problem does Karana face in Chapter 10? How would you solve it?
  • What can you infer about Karana’s character based on her actions?
  • Why are the stars important?
  • Summarize what happens in this chapter.

Chapters 11–12 | Response to Literature: Making Connections

  • How does Karana feel to be back home? Describe a time when you felt like this.
  • What new understanding does your knowledge of sea elephants bring to the story?
  • Continue adding to your character chart for Karana.

Chapters 13–14 | Language Conventions: Fluency

  • Karana is determined to make a spear with an elephant seal tooth and goes to great lengths to do this. Does this seem like a smart idea? Why or why not? Suggest an alternative to Karana’s plan.

Chapters 15–16 | Literary Elements: Setting

  • Describe the setting of the story. Explain how the setting helps make this story possible.
  • Describe the relationship between Karana and the wild dogs. Does her new relationship with Rontu surprise you? Why?
  • Add the sea caves and other details to your island map.

Chapters 17–18 | Literary Elements: Imagery and Figurative Language

  • Identify one or two images from the text and explain why you found them striking.
  • Write a description of Karana, Rontu, the setting, or another element of the book using imagery and figurative language.
  • How does Karana make the giant spear? How does it work? Illustrate and label it.

Chapters 19–20 | Language Conventions: Action Verbs

  • Karana finally encounters the giant devilfish. Describe this action-packed event.
  • What is the mood of the scene in which Karana and Rontu explore Black Cave? Explain your answer using details from the story.
  • What long-awaited event happens in Chapter 20? How does Karana respond? What do you think might happen next and why?

Chapters 21–22 | Comprehension: Analyzing Character

  • Does Karana trust Tutok? Explain.
  • How does Karana feel at the end of Chapter 22? Have you ever been in a similar situation?
  • Continue summarizing the main events of the novel.

Chapters 23–25 | Comprehension: Sequencing

  • Sequence the major story events since the beginning of the book. Use a timeline, flowchart, or numbered list.
  • Add to your island map or your character chart.

Chapters 26–27 | Literary Elements: Vivid Description

  • Describe how Karana catches Rontu’s son. What mood is created in this scene?
  • What mood does O’Dell create with his description of the tidal wave and earthquake? How does he create it?
  • Write a vivid description of a natural event, such as a snowstorm or thunderstorm.

Chapters 28–29 | Comprehension: Making a Story Graph

  • Create a story graph for Island of the Blue Dolphins.
  • What was your favorite part of the book? Why?

Author’s Note | Literary Elements: Genre—Historical Fiction

  • What interesting facts did you learn from the Author’s Note?
  • Which parts of O’Dell’s story seem to be true and historically accurate? Which parts seem to be made up by the author?