Sara L. Schwebel, professor and director of the Center for Children's Books, gave the opening keynote for the 26th biennial International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL) 2023 Congress, which was held from August 12-16 in Santa Barbara, California. The theme of this year's conference, which attracted attendees from over thirty countries and six continents, was "Ecologies of Childhood: Children's Literature, Culture, and the Environment."
In her keynote, "The Complex Precursors, Legacies, and Possibilities of Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins," Schwebel provides a critical examination of O'Dell's book, a historical novel based on the life of an American Indian woman who spent 18 years in isolation on San Nicolas Island, a Channel Island off the coast of Southern California. According to Schwebel, while heralded for "its environmental and feminist messages, its centering of an American Indian, and its masterful storytelling," the story is deeply problematic.
"O'Dell's carefully researched novel absorbs nineteenth-century literary tropes, explanatory frameworks forged during the period of European Discovery and Conquest and refined in U.S. discourse during the establishment of the first settler societies, such as the Pilgrims of Massachusetts. Adopted into the U.S. curriculum, the novel is an instrument of settler colonialism," said Schwebel.
In her talk, Schwebel draws on the Lone Woman and Last Indians digital archive which she developed with students. The archive is linked to a web resource, Island of the Blue Dolphins website, which she developed in partnership with the National Park Service.
"Island of the Blue Dolphins, which neither emerges from nor reflects indigenous worldviews, in no way fulfills the pressing call for diverse books," said Schwebel. "Rather, it provides a window into centuries of white thought about 'the Indian,' provoking consideration of the role narratives play in shaping social and political realities."
A historian and children's literature scholar, Schwebel centers her research on the way books, media, and school instruction shape young people's conceptualizations of the past. She is the author of Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms (2011), editor of Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader's Edition (2016), and coeditor, with Jocelyn Van Tuyl, of Dust Off the Gold Medal: Rediscovering Children's Literature at the Newbery Centennial (2022). Schwebel holds a PhD in the history of American civilization from Harvard University.