This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1987 winner, Streams to the River, River to the Sea by O’Dell.
Although O’Dell helped set up the award, he did not give it to himself. The winner was and continues to be named by a committee. In addition, O’Dell did not accept the cash prize. He donated it to the Children’s Book Council.
Incidentally, only two people have won the award twice–O’Dell and Louise Erdrich.
Streams to the River, River to the Sea is the story of Sacagawea, the very young Shoshone woman and mother, who was a guide and interpreter for the Corps of Discovery, led by Meriweather Lewis and William Clark, across the Upper Midwest and Northwest to the Pacific Ocean in the early 1800s.
1. Be as accurate as possible. Sacagawea’s real life was documented mostly in Lewis and Clark’s writings. So her story was told from their point of view. We don’t really know what she thought. We aren’t sure what the correct spelling or pronunciation is of her name. (I’m using the spelling used in the novel.) And what many people thought they knew about her later life probably isn’t true.
O’Dell wrote in his author’s note that Sacagawea lived to an old age and was buried in what’s now Wyoming. But by the mid-20th Century, research had shown she had likely died at Ft. Manuel (which is now part of the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota) in 1812 or 1813.
O’Dell did a good job showing how important Sacagawea was to the success of the Corps’ mission. Yet he did not show the Corps’ choosing of their winter camp site (Ft. Clatsop). Each member of the corps, including York (Clark’s black slave) and Sacagawea (female and Shoshone), had an equal vote!
2. Provide back matter. This should include bibliographical information, additional pertinent historical information, and explanations of what is factual versus what is fictional. O’Dell did use an author’s note which explained Lewis and Clark’s mission, and he named his sources. However, I would have appreciated more info. I think back matter is more common than it was nearly 30 years ago. I’m glad.
Since historical fiction is often used in school, it is an opportunity to give students resources for finding out more information and thinking critically. As a writer, I also like it when authors explain where and why they took artistic license for the sake of the story.
1. Tell a story. Historical fiction is not a biography. It’s a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, and it usually has a main character who grows emotionally. Real life might be stranger than fiction, but it often doesn’t seem to make sense. A story must make sense.
O’Dell told an engaging story. The fictional Sacagawea starts as a strong girl, with little control over her life, who does what she can to make the best of her situation. The novel ends with a young woman who chooses to change her situation.
But to tell this story, O’Dell compressed time, created a romance between her and Clark, and gave Sacagawea a happy ending.
2. Focus on the protagonist. Even though the novel includes most of the Lewis and Clark’s trip, the novel begins with the day Sacagawea is taken from her home in the mountains by men from another tribe to their home territory next to the Missouri River, in what’s now North Dakota. Lewis and Clark don’t show up until the book is about half over. For the first half, Sacagawea is working on staying alive and trying to make the best of her slavery and forced marriage.
Then during the famous trek, we don’t see every day. We see days that are important to Sacagawea (except the Ft. Clatsop vote), how she contributes to the success of the trip, how she stands up for herself, and how she feels about the people around her.
3. Choose protagonist carefully. By telling Sacagawea’s story, O’Dell chose a well-known historical figure that already interested many people. This means a large readership. Plus, most of Sacagawea’s life was not documented, so there is room for fictionalization in parts of her life.
However, she was also such a well-known figure that readers notice and care if the story is inaccurate.
Novelists have a responsibility to make their characters as factual and authentic, for the characters’ time and place, as possible.
It’s a difficult balancing act to fictionalize someone famous. I think that’s why many historical fiction protagonists are fictional people who interact with the real people. There’s more freedom to tell the protagonists’ stories.
For more info about Sacagawea and my 3-year reading challenge, see:
Join me Jan. 27 for my next challenge book, the 2008 winner, Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis.
There are many books about Sacagawea. What are your favorite ones?
Since I love both historical fiction and children’s books, I recently challenged myself to read all the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction winning books. But, to start things off, I read O’Dell’s first children’s book, and possibly the one he’s most known for, Island of the Blue Dolphins.
O’Dell had written non-fiction, short stories, and novels for adults. But once Island of the Blue Dolphins was published in 1960 and then received the Newbery Award, one of the most distinguished awards for children’s literature, he continued to write more historical fiction for children and earned the Newbery three more times.
At the beginning of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana is 12 and lives in a village on a small island. A ship full of Aleuts, captained by a white man, comes to the island to hunt sea otters. The captain makes a deal with Karana’s father so the tribe can share in the results of the hunting. But the captain and the Aleuts double-cross the villagers. In the resulting battle most of the tribe’s men are killed. The hunters leave, and the villagers survive for months on their own. However, their elderly leader knows they need help, so he takes a canoe to the land far to the east. Eventually a ship comes for the villagers, but the weather is bad and the ship only stays long enough to load the villagers and what they can carry. In the hurry and confusion, Karana sees her little brother is left alone on the island. She jumps overboard and swims back to her brother. But the ship sails on and doesn’t return.
Not only is the book set in a historical time-period, but O’Dell based the story on a real woman’s experience.
There really was a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island, off the coast of Southern California, for 18 years (1835-1853). People on the mainland knew about her, though, and a priest at the Santa Barbara Mission asked Capt. George Nidever to watch for her when he was otter hunting at San Nicolas. Nidever did find her and brought her back to Santa Barbara. He thought she was about 50 years old, but apparently they could communicate only through sign language. Unfortunately, the woman lived less than two months after coming to the mainland, and she was buried at the Santa Barbara Mission.
San Nicolas is now a base of the U.S. Navy, and archeologists have worked on the island for years. But recently, some archeologists found a cave where the woman may have lived or used for storage. Here’s a link to the Los Angeles Times article about that potential find: “‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ woman’s cave believed found”.
O’Dell used the facts for inspiration, but he changed things for the sake of the story.
For example, Karana probably wasn’t on the island as long as the actual woman was, and Karana was much younger than the woman. This last detail made Karana’s story work for kids. However, according to the Scott O’Dell website, O’Dell didn’t realize his story would appeal to kids until children’s author and friend, Maud Lovelace, admired the manuscript.
And although he fictionalized the story, O’Dell was respectful of both the woman and her culture.
When I read Island of the Blue Dolphin as a kid, I don’t think I focused on the history aspect. In fact, I only found out it was based on an actual person within the past few months. I thought it was a story about a girl who figured out how to use what she had to survive on her own. That seemed to be a theme in many of my favorite childhood books.
Finally, there is very little dialogue in the book, yet it works.
Other than her pets, Karana is alone for much of the book, so there are many pages with no dialogue. Perhaps that was more common in books 50 years ago, but now that would make for a hard-sell. The current trend for novels (and not just kids’ novels) is lots of action and a fast pace. But, Island of the Blue Dolphins is full of action. Karana battles the elements, fights wild dogs, tries to sail in a leaking canoe, hunts a devilfish, and makes a few friends (one human and many non-human). These may not be big-explosion-type actions, but they are actions that have huge stakes for Karana.
O’Dell used the first person point of view, too. So, although Karana may not be talking to others a lot, it feels like she is talking directly to me, the reader.
The next book I read for the challenge will be Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, 2013 winner. Join me, and we’ll talk about it April 29.
Have you read Island of the Blue Dolphins? What did you learn from it?
I’m getting ready to give a presentation about the major book awards for children’s books to my local children’s writers/illustrators books, and one of those major awards the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.
O’Dell wrote many children’s historical fiction books, but may be best known for his first kids’ book, The Island of the Blue Dolphins (Houghton Mifflin, 1960) which won the Newbery Medal, possibly the most prestigious kids’ book award for text, 1961.
O’Dell set up the annual award (plus a $5,000 prize) to honor an American author of children’s historical fiction whose book is set in the Western Hemisphere. The award committee also prefers newer writers. So far, 31 books have been awarded the prize.
However, to my shock, I’ve only read four of those books! Therefore, I’m challenging myself to read the rest! Once a month I will post what I’ve learned from that month’s book—history-wise and writing-wise. I don’t really do book reviews, so I’ll focus on what I like and what I’ve learned. It will take me the next three years because by the time I get close to being done, there will be two new winners.
Will you join me? At the end of March we’ll talk about The Island of the Blue Dolphins. No, it’s not a Scott O’Dell award book, but it’s the one that started it all.