Scott O’Dell, ‘Blue Dolphins’ author, tells why he writes for children

by Conrad on December 15, 2010

Photo of Scott O'Dell and wife Elizabeth Hall.

Here’s the piece I wrote about Scott O’Dell for The New York Times, published April 15, 1984. During the interview, Scott nudged me to think about writing for young readers.

In the late 1950’s, before he wrote ”Island of the Blue Dolphins,” which was to become one of the most popular children’s books of all time, Scott O’Dell was at a low point in his career as a writer.

He was the author of a half dozen books ranging from historical fiction to California history. He had developed over the years a spare, cadenced prose style. Yet he had never quite found his literary niche.

Since then, Mr. O’Dell, who will be 86 next month, has written 20 books for young readers and has been awarded nearly every major prize for juvenile literature.

However, none of this seemed likely in the late 50’s. At the time, he was living in an old mining town in the mountains east of San Diego where his main interests included wildlife preservation and gardening.

”I didn’t really have writer’s block,” he said of that period.”I just wasn’t interested in writing.”

Mr. O’Dell was roused from his creative slumber by the growing presence of hunters in the area of his home. ”They were killing all the wildlife,” he said. ”I got awfully damn mad; I got so mad I wanted to do something about it.”

He vented his rage ”quietly and coolly” by writing ”Dolphins,” which was based on the true story of an Indian girl who lived 18 years alone on an island off the California coast. Mr. O’Dell said that in the story he tried to weave together the themes of ”reverence for all life and the Christian ideal of forgiveness.”

The book was written with no audience in mind, he said; it was ”just something I wanted to say to myself.”

In writing it, Mr. O’Dell was able to focus his own strong views about human nature. He also hit on a narrative form that was at once simple and rhythmic and that carried the Job- like message that no adversity is great enough to stifle the human spirit.

This combination, which he has used in subsequent books, has had an immense appeal to young readers, particularly those between the ages of 11 and 15.

”Island of the Blue Dolphins” is now in its 37th printing in hard cover alone and the books that followed at roughly the rate of one a year have regularly been top sellers in the youth market. His dozen or so prizes include the John Newbery Medal – the Pulitzer Prize of juvenile literature – for ”Dolphins”; three Newbery Honor Awards, and the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, given under the auspices of 15 countries for a body of work.

Two of his books, ”Dolphins” and ”The Black Pearl,” have been made into films.

Mr. O’Dell now lives in Waccabuc in the northeast corner of the county. His wife, Elizabeth Hall, is a former managing editor of Psychology Today and a former editor in chief of Human Nature magazine. She specializes in writing psychology textbooks.

From their home on the shore of a secluded lake, Mr. O’Dell can see some of the landmarks that were the setting of his 1980 novel, ”Sarah Bishop.” The book was based on the true story of a young woman who fled her Long Island home during the American Revolution and for years lived alone in a cave a short distance from the O’Dell house.

As in the case of a number of other O’Dell protagonists, Sarah Bishop renounces a conventional life for one that is lived close to nature and that constantly tests both her survival instincts and moral judgment.

Mr. O’Dell, who is a direct descendentof a first cousin of Sir Walter Scott, is a robust man with blue eyes and a deep tan. He is apt to point out to visitors where the real as well as fictional Sarah lived, or the beach on a nearby pond where she was bitten, though not fatally, by a copperhead snake.

Mr. O’Dell said the ideas for his books often came through reading history. For ”The Hawk That Dare Not Hunt by Day,” a novel based on the life of William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English, he became intrigued with the idea that a young man would martyr himself ”so that every plowboy in England could read the Bible.” Mr. O’Dell and his wife traveled extensively through England and Germany to research the book.

His idea for a trilogy on Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilizations came from reading about the rulers of these nations as well as about the Spanish conquistador Pizarro. To gather material for the trilogy, he and his wife journeyed through Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica and to the headwaters of the Amazon River.

His latest book, ”Alexandra,” will be published April 30 by the Houghton Mifflin Company. The story concerns a young woman who joins the crew of her grandfather’s boat as a sponge diver. ”Alexandra” is set in modern- day Florida, yet has many of the themes of Mr. O’Dell’s historical novels.

Among them is the portrayal of women in unorthodox roles, often doing ”man’s work” as well as or better than any man.

”One thing I’ve done in my writing life,” Mr. O’Dell said, ”is champion women’s causes. I have great admiration for women. They are the repositories of the instinct of preservation. I think they are far superior to men.”

While he was in Florida researching ”Alexandra,” Mr. O’Dell happened upon several articles on sponge diving by Charles Rawlings, who had been his roommate at the University of Wisconsin about 1920.

The articles provided him with useful material for his book. ”I sort of cribbed from him,” Mr. O’Dell said.

He said that he had introduced Charles Rawlings to another student at the University of Wisconsin, a young writer named Marjorie Kinnan. The two later married and Mrs. Rawlings became the noted author of ”The Yearling.”

Mr. O’Dell spent the first 60 or so years of his life at a number of trades, including motion pictures, farming and journalism.

Born in Los Angeles, he excelled in elementary and high school to the extent that he considered himself ”probably the brightest guy in America, though not necessarily the world.”

On entering Stanford University following the University of Wisconsin, he was shocked to learn that other students were ”as bright or brighter than I was.”

He avoided scholastic competition ”because I saw I had never learned to study – I hadn’t the patience, ability or motivation to remember a textbook.”

After college, he got a job as a cameraman and technical director at Paramount Studios, where he worked on several Gloria Swanson films, the original ”Ben Hur,” and Rudolph Valentino’s picture, ”The Sheik.”

Mr. O’Dell said that one scene in ”The Sheik” required that Valentino hold a pearl necklace in his hand.

”Valentino was a wonderful-looking guy,” Mr. O’Dell said. ”But he had butchers’ hands, at least they came over that way.”

Mr. O’Dell’s hand was used in the scene instead.

”If you see ‘The Sheik’ today,” he said, ”and you see that scene of Valentino holding the pearls, that’s my hand – my only claim to fame!”

Mr. O’Dell later moved to Claremont, Calif., and went into the orange-farming business. However, his only profit, he said, was on the sale of the farm several years later. He and his wife now own a 300-acre cattle and chicken farm near Bath, N.Y., which his daughter and son-in- law manage.

He also worked as a book editor for The Los Angeles Daily News and as a book columnist for The Los Angeles Times.

Not long ago, Mr. O’Dell established the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, a prize of $5,000 that he will award yearly to the author of an outstanding work of historical fiction for young readers. Selections will be made by an advisory committee of the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. Mr. O’Dell will be on hand on April 24 in Chicago to present the first award to Elizabeth George Speare for ”The Sign of the Beaver.”

Mr. O’Dell is now at work on a novel based on the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It will be somewhat longer than the 150 to 200 pages of his other books. In it, he said, he will make the strongest statement he can about the futility and immorality of war.

Mr. O’Dell said that before he discovered his young audience he had only a tentative commitment to the craft of writing. His commitment is now strong, he said, and grounded in the enthusiastic reception of his books by young readers. According to Houghton Mifflin, he receives more than 2,000 letters a year from readers.

”The only reason I write is to say something,” Mr. O’Dell said. ‘I’ve forsaken adults because they’re not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.”

* Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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