15 Facts About Island of the Blue Dolphins


American author Scott O'Dell penned 26 children's novels over the course of his career, but his most popular by far is Island of the Blue Dolphins. The haunting—and at times harrowing—story followed the adventures of a Native American girl forced to survive alone on a forgotten island, where she tamed wild dogs and defied the odds. But as beloved as this book is, few know the incredible true story that lies just beneath O'Dell's spare but thoughtful prose.


O'Dell got his start in the burgeoning film industry. Before serving in the U.S. Air Force in World War II, he snagged jobs as a cameraman and a technical director, later transitioning to work at the Los Angeles Mirror as a book columnist, then the Los Angeles Daily News as a book editor. Though he'd begun writing articles and novels for adults in his mid-thirties, it wasn't until he was in his sixties that O'Dell found his calling as a children's novelist. By 1972, his incredible works—including Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Pearl and Sing Down the Moon—earned him the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the greatest honor offered to children's book creators.


Though published in 1960, the novel's inspiration came from over 100 years before. Off the coast of California lies San Nicolas Island, where the Nicoleño tribe once thrived. In 1814, a brutal slaughter at the hands of Native Alaskan otter hunters critically hurt the tribe's numbers. By 1835, missionaries intervened, urging the last of the Nicoleño to leave their little island in favor of the more hospitable mainland. But a young woman—who would come to be called Juana Maria—literally missed the boat. She spent 18 years on the island all by herself, and would become remembered as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. O'Dell's version of this story left out the missionaries, but maintained the slaughter by trappers and the tribe's abandonment of the island.


No one knows the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island's real name. "Juana Maria" is what the missionaries christened her when she came to their mission in her 40s. With her real name lost, O'Dell opted to call her fictional doppelgänger Karana.


Why didn't Juana Maria join her people on the boats? The most popular theory is that she did, but as the ship took to the sea, she realized a child (usually her child) had been left behind. So, she dramatically dove overboard to return to and care for it. But Navy archaeologist Steven Schwartz believes this is not the best explanation, as much as the best story. "The story of her jumping overboard does not show up until the 1880s (nearly 50 years after the event)," he says. "By then the Victorian era is well underway, and literature takes on a flowery, even romantic flavor."

Still, the story appealed to O'Dell. In Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana follows in the mythic footsteps (or swim strokes) of Juana Maria, diving overboard and returning to shore once she realizes her little brother has missed the boat.


Juana Maria is believed to have been around 24 when she was stranded on San Nicolas Island. (Her exact age cannot be pinned down, because her birth date is unknown.) To raise the stakes and make the story more appealing to the children it was aimed to entertain, O'Dell made the heroine of his novel a tenacious 12-year-old girl.


Because of how the tribe was killed off and then dispersed into California, the Nicoleño culture has been largely lost. So the 60-something O'Dell looked to the legends and customs of other tribes of the Channel Islands, then carefully described tools like the pitch-lined baskets used to haul water. But as Slate noted in a book review of the novel's 2016 Complete Reader's Edition, "Other details, like the islanders’ use of two names—a public one for strangers and a true one for trusted intimates—he simply made up."


Edited by associate professor of English at the University of South Carolina Sara L. Schwebel, this version of O'Dell's novel boasts two previously excised chapters that had never before been published, as well as "a critical introduction and essays that offer new background on the archaeological, legal, and colonial histories of Native peoples in California." These elements aim to add a greater context and discussion tools for modern readers.


The film directed by James B. Clark opened on July 3, 1964, to faint praise. The New York Times's Howard Thompson described it as "a bit thin and sugary," adding, "(Island of the Blue Dolphins) is about as unstartling and uneventful as can be—and as pretty to look at." Nonetheless, ingénue Celia Kaye won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer (Female), while the film was honored with Boxoffice Magazine's Best Picture of the Month for the Whole Family award.


Zia follows the titular heroine, the 14-year-old niece of Karana, as she sets forth on a sea-faring quest to find her long-lost aunt. After many trials and tribulations, Zia does reunite with Karana, but their joy is short-lived. Upon its release in 1976, Publisher's Weekly called the children's novel "Bound to be among the outstanding books of the year."


O'Dell created the character of Zia altogether. But in the book, the girl discovers proof that Karana may still live in that she finds footprints in the sand, the remnants of a cooking fire, and a small hut. In real life, American mountain man/explorer/otter hunter George Nidever led three expeditions to San Nicholas, originally for sea gull eggs. On the first expedition he found a footprint that had been made a long time prior alongside more recent evidence of seal blubber dehydrating. On a second trip they found more evidence of recent occupation, and on the third trip he found the Lone Woman. Another true detail cherry-picked for Zia was that no one could really communicate with Juana Maria, her language having transformed into something unique and unfamiliar to the mainlanders. Plus, just as he did in real life, "Captain Nidever" brings the lost tribeswoman to the mainland, and then to the Santa Barbara Mission.


Today San Nicolas is predominantly a naval air station, where aforementioned archaeologist Schwartz has dedicatedly been searching for evidence of the Lone Woman's life. He scoured its beaches and sandstone cliffs, drilling exploratory holes, and consulting ancient maps in hopes of uncovering artifacts. Finally in 2012, he found a cave that measures 75 feet long and 10 feet high, and demanded 40,000 buckets-worth of sand to unearth. He's "90 percent sure" this is where Juana Maria would have spent much of her time.


Another team found redwood boxes containing 200 stone blades, harpoon points, and bone fishhooks. But when the Navy announced plans to relocate these artifacts from San Nicolas to the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, California, archaeologists and Native American leaders banded together, creating a petition to stop them. The main concern is the move could damage these precious artifacts between the risks of travel and a drier climate that could make them brittle. But the Navy's response was essentially that the objects would receive the highest care and consideration.


In Zia, Karana peacefully passes away shortly after her niece finds her. In real life, Maria was welcomed into the Santa Barbara mission, where she entertained residents, singing and dancing. But just seven weeks into her stay, Maria passed away. She was buried at the mission's cemetery, within the Nidever family's plot. In 1928, the Daughters of the American Revolution remembered her with a commemorative plate placed on her grave.


In 1982—seven years before his passing—the author created his own literary honor: the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Awarded to children's and young adult books with a focus on history, the award was O'Dell's way of encouraging other writers to create Island of the Blue Dolphin books of their own. His hope was that such engaging explorations would engage American children in history. Winners have included Jennifer L. Holm's Depression era-set Full of Beans, Jack Gantos' autobiographical Dead End in Norvelt, and Rita Williams-Garcia's 1968 Oakland-set One Crazy Summer.


The year of its release, O'Dell's novel was celebrated with the Newbery Medal, awarded to "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Since then, Island of the Blue Dolphins has ended up on countless reading lists for school assignments. Even as the conversation evolves around what it means to have a white man reconstruct—or flat-out re-imagine—the life and culture of a lost Native American tribe, the book holds a hallowed place in children's historical fiction and in the hearts of many writers and readers. Plus Island of the Blue Dolphins boasts more than 6.5 million copies in print, and is roundly counted as one of the most popular novels of the 20th century.

11 Fun Facts About Dolly Parton

Brendon Thorne, Getty Images
Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Over the past 50-some years, Dolly Parton has gone from a chipper country starlet to a worldwide icon of music and movies whose fans consistently pack a theme park designed (and named) in her honor. Dolly Parton is loved, lauded, and larger than life. But even her most devoted admirers might not know all there is to this Backwoods Barbie.

1. You won't find Dolly Parton on a Dollywood roller coaster.

Her theme park Dollywood offers a wide variety of attractions for all ages. Though she's owned it for more than 30 years, Parton has declined to partake in any of its rides. "My daddy used to say, 'I could never be a sailor. I could never be a miner. I could never be a pilot,' I am the same way," she once explained. "I have motion sickness. I could never ride some of these rides. I used to get sick on the school bus."

2. Dolly Parton once entered a Dolly Parton look-alike contest—and lost.

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Apparently Parton doesn't do drag well. “At a Halloween contest years ago on Santa Monica Boulevard, where all the guys were dressed up like me, I just over-exaggerated my look and went in and just walked up on stage," she told ABC. "I didn’t win. I didn’t even come in close, I don’t think.”

3. Dolly Parton spent a fortune to recreate her childhood home.

Parton and her 11 siblings were raised in a small house in the mountains of Tennessee that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. When Parton bought the place, she hired her brother Bobby to restore it to the way it looked when they were kids. "But we wanted it to be functional," she recounted on The Nate Berkus Show, "So I spent a couple million dollars making it look like I spent $50 on it! Even like in the bathroom, I made the bathroom so it looked like an outdoor toilet.” You do you, Dolly.

4. Dolly Parton won't apologize for Rhinestone.

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Parton is well-known for her hit movies Steel Magnolias and 9 to 5, less so for the 1984 flop Rhinestone. The comedy musical about a country singer and a New York cabbie was critically reviled and fled from theaters in just four weeks. But while her co-star Sylvester Stallone has publicly regretted the vehicle, Parton declared in her autobiography My Life and Other Unfinished Business that she counts Rhinestone's soundtrack as some of her best work, especially "What a Heartache."

5. Dolly Parton is Miley Cyrus's godmother ... sort of.

"I'm her honorary godmother. I've known her since she was a baby," Parton told ABC of her close relationship with Miley Cyrus. "Her father (Billy Ray Cyrus) is a friend of mine. And when she was born, he said, 'You just have to be her godmother,' and I said, 'I accept.' We never did do a big ceremony, but I'm so proud of her, love her, and she's just like one of my own." Parton also played Aunt Dolly on Cyrus's series Hannah Montana.

6. Dolly Parton received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

A photo of Dolly Parton on stage
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In the mid-2000s, Dollywood joined the ranks of family amusement parks participating in "Gay Days," a time when families with LGBTQ members are encouraged to celebrate together in a welcoming community environment. This riled the KKK, but their threats didn't scare Dolly. "I still get threats," she has admitted. "But like I said, I'm in business. I just don't feel like I have to explain myself. I love everybody."

7. Dolly Parton started her own "library" to promote literacy, and has given away more than 100 million books.

In 1995, the pop culture icon founded Dolly Parton's Imagination Library with the goal of encouraging literacy in her home state of Tennessee. Over the years, the program—built to mail children age-appropriate books—spread nationwide, as well as to Canada, the UK, and Australia. When word of the Imagination Library hit Reddit, the swarms of parents eager to sign their kids up crashed the Imagination Library site. It is now back on track, accepting new registrations and donations.

8. There's a statue of Dolly Parton in her hometown of Sevierville, Tennessee.

A stone's throw from Dollywood, Sevierville, Tennessee is where Parton grew up. Between stimulating tourism and her philanthropy, this proud native has given a lot back to her hometown. And Sevierville residents returned that appreciation with a life-sized bronze Dolly that sits barefoot, beaming, and cradling a guitar, just outside the county courthouse. The sculpture, made by local artist Jim Gray, was dedicated on May 3, 1987. Today it is the most popular stop on Sevierville's walking tour.

9. The cloned sheep Dolly was named after Dolly Parton.

In 1995 scientists successfully created a clone from an adult mammal's somatic cell. This game-changing breakthrough in biology was named Dolly. But what about Parton inspired this honor? Her own groundbreaking career? Some signature witticism or beloved lyric? Nope. It was her legendary bustline. English embryologist Ian Wilmut revealed, "Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn't think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton's."

10. Dolly Parton turned down an offer from Elvis Presley.

After Parton made her own hit out of "I Will Always Love You," Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, reached out in hopes of having Presley cover it. But part of the deal demanded Parton surrender half of the publishing rights to the song. "Other people were saying, 'You're nuts. It's Elvis Presley. I'd give him all of it!'" Parton admitted, "But I said, 'I can't do that. Something in my heart says don't do that.' And I didn't do it and they didn't do it." It may have been for the best. Whitney Houston's cover for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992 was a massive hit that has paid off again and again for Parton.

11. In 2018, Dolly Parton earned two Guinness World Records.

Parton is no stranger to breaking records. And on January 17, 2018 it was announced that she holds not one but two spot in the Guinness World Records 2018 edition: One for Most Decades With a Top 20 Hit on the US Hot Country Songs Chart (she beat out George Jones, Reba McEntire, and Elvis Presley for the honor) and the other for Most Hits on US Hot Country Songs Chart By a Female Artist (with a total of 107). Parton said she was "humbled and blessed."

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born on January 19, 1809.

1. Edgar Allan Poe was the original Balloon Boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. Edgar Allan Poe dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later for Edgar Allan Poe.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. Edgar Allan Poe had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. Edgar Allan Poe's death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.