Schwebel discusses Island of the Blue Dolphins and NPS web resource

Sara Schwebel
Sara L. Schwebel, Professor and Director, The Center for Children's Books

With schools resorting to virtual instruction during the pandemic, educators and families rely on online resources such as the National Park Service's Island of the Blue Dolphins website, which was developed by Sara L. Schwebel, iSchool professor and director of The Center for Children's Books, in partnership with the NPS. In this Q&A, Schwebel discusses how her research on the Island of the Blue Dolphins book led to her work with the NPS and future plans for the Books to Parks initiative.

Why did you choose Scott O’Dell’s book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, for your research?

Island of the Blue Dolphins has arguably been the most widely taught work of children's historical fiction in the United States for decades; as such, it has played an outsized role in children's understanding of the national past. Historians have long been interested in exactly what history children learn in school textbooks. But the history they learn by reading fiction is equally important.

Why do you think Island of the Blue Dolphins has remained a classroom staple after so many years? What lessons does the book teach?

The answer is complicated, and not what everyone wants to hear. The easy response is that the Newbery-winning book narrates a compelling story in beautiful, spare prose. At the time of its original, 1960 publication, it spoke to both the feminist and environmental movements with its strong, female character who flourished alone on an island and cared for its natural resources. But the novel's protagonist is a Native Californian who is alone on the island as a result of imperialism and multinational policies of Indian removal; moreover, the novel is a Vanishing Indian story. At the book's end, the protagonist has been "rescued" by white hunters and a priest and brought to the California mainland. Readers are told in the afterword that she died just seven weeks later, as the last of her people. (In fact, the rapidity of her death is true, but she was not "the last of her race.") Today's readers are more conscious than those of the past that Dolphins is not an #OwnVoices text. Yet the irony of labeling an indigenous woman a "female Crusoe" is more difficult for many to see. My hope is that children, parents, and teachers will read Island of the Blue Dolphins alongside a wealth of historical and scientific material on the NPS website (as well as in conversation with #Own Voices texts) to better understand how the stories we tell—and how we tell stories—matter.

Tell me about the Island of the Blue Dolphins project with the National Park Service. How did the project originate?

Fortuitous timing! I had written about Island of the Blue Dolphins in my first book, Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms (Vanderbilt, 2011), and I was in the process of creating a critical edition of the novel as part of my plan to publish a deeply researched, critical resource on the book that would be accessible to elementary school teachers and librarians: the people who introduce Dolphins to children.  I contacted the Channel Islands National Park because I knew that teachers frequently sought them out for information about the real, historical story that shapes the structure of the novel (it is set on a California Channel Island during the early nineteenth century). As it turned out, the park was in the beginning stages of creating a web resource on the novel; we decided to partner, and the project grew broader and deeper than any of us could have imagined at the time.

How has the Island of the Blue Dolphins NPS site been used by educators and parents?

It's always difficult to know how resources you've sent out into the world are utilized, but prior to the pandemic, I Skyped with fourth grade classrooms who interacted with a variety of media on the website as their class studied Island of the Blue Dolphins. The children asked insightful questions about the choices O'Dell made in his story, so I know that the website helped them to think about what was fact and what was fiction—and why that mattered.

What are your plans for partnering with the NPS to expand the Books to Parks initiative?

The website is the first in a Books to Parks initiative that, in linking award-winning children's literature to national parks, creates pathways for every child in the United States to visit and be inspired by our national treasures: public lands protected for the benefit of all.

The Center for Children's Books plans to partner with the NPS to create a landing page that provides a list of books-to-parks links. As individual parks decide that they are interested in building an expanded site with multiple features—similar in kind to the Island of the Blue Dolphins site—I will work with iSchool students to offer support in the form of research and the creation of a variety of content, such as K-12 lesson plans, interactive maps, and digital archives.

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