Scott O'Dell: A Natural Born Writer (1898 - 1989)
Odell Scott (Scott O'Dell) grew up in a California that was still wild and natural. No freeways, no asphalt, no hundred-story buildings. People got around by walking, taking a trolley or train, or riding horseback. His family lived in a house on stilts that was so much a part of the landscape that the waves at high tide splashed against its supports. He loved the outdoors and decided to become a writer as a youngster after he learned that he was related to the classic British historical novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott.
Scott O'Dell is most famous for his first children's book, Island of the Blue Dolphins. The story is a rich, rare piece. Its quiet words are perfectly in tune with the ocean, beach, and sky that make up its setting. Odell Scott, who later became known as Scott O'Dell, said the story came from his memories of growing up on the coast:
"Island of the Blue Dolphins, though it is based upon the true story of a girl who lived alone on a California island for eighteen years, came from the memory of my years at San Pedro and Dead Man's Island, when, with other boys my age, I voyaged out on summer mornings in search of adventure.
One day we left the landlocked world and went to sea, each of us on separate logs. From the forests of Oregon, the logs had been towed into the harbor in great rafts. They were twelve feet long or longer, rough with splinters, and covered with tar. But to each of us young Magellans, they were proud canoes, dugouts fashioned by ax and fire, graceful, fierce-prowed--equal to any storm.
We freed them from the deep-water slips where they waited for the sawmill. Paddling with our hands, we set to sea--to the breakwater and even to Portuguese Bend. We returned hours later, having circumnavigated the watery world. Some mornings, in sun or rain, we searched for devilfish among the sea-washed rocks off Dead Man's Island."*
Mr. O'Dell went on to write more than 25 children's books, several with the help of his wife, Elizabeth Hall. Ms. Hall, herself a public librarian for some years, said, "Scott believed that his success in the field of children's literature was primarily due to the librarians of this country and to their bestowal of the Newbery Medal on Island of the Blue Dolphins, as well as their selection of 3 other books for Newbery Honor books (The King's Fifth, The Black Pearl, Sing Down the Moon). He was deeply grateful for their support and always enjoyed attending ALA in June when he could." He and his wife met while he was speaking to students at a school in her small California town. "The attraction was instant and mutual."*
The author's deep convictions shone in his works. He wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins because of his anger at hunters who destroy wildlife and wanted to show how poorly the native people were treated. Much of his writing coincided with the rise of social and environmental activism in the 1960s and 1970s. Zia, the sequel to Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Name is Not Angelica, a tale of an island slave rebellion in 1733, and Sing Down the Moon all serve as reminders of the historic indignities suffered by conquered peoples.
He also wrote to encourage young people to realize that history had a very real connection to their lives. His heroes and heroines are smart and plucky, learning to take what life throws at them and work for their own independence. In Sarah Bishop, a girl whose family was torn apart by the Revolutionary War finds herself a wanted criminal in the wilderness. Sacagawea, the Shoshone heroine of Streams to the River, River to the Sea, experiences the dangerous pleasures of being guide and interpreter to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Scott O'Dell lived to a great age, at last dying of cancer in 1989. His legacy lives on in the millions of readers whom his writings have touched and by way of a special award he created for historical children's fiction. The Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction encourages children's and young adult authors to try their hands at conveying the lessons of the past to young people.
A Final Journey... and a Tribute
His books took readers across great continents and hundreds of years back in time. When the moment came for his last voyage, he was greeted and honored by the animals he so loved:
"Scott O'Dell's ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean off La Jolla, California. When the ceremony was completed, the boat turned back toward shore. At that moment, a pod of dolphins burst from the water. Forming an honor guard, they leaped and played, escorting the boat of mourners. The dolphins did not leave until the boat entered San Diego Bay."*
Reading to Learn More
The Central Rappahannock Regional Library owns many of Scott O'Dell's books. His writings have also been recorded on tape and make for wonderful listening on long vacation drives. Click here for the complete list.
On the Web
Web sites and articles on this famous author abound:
Articles on Scott O'Dell in Biography Resource Center
Look here to find three reference book articles. Available as part of our database collection to CRRL library patrons.
Literature Resource Center: Scott O'Dell
Articles from Contemporary Authors and Dictionary of Literary Biography. Use a CRRL library card to enter this database.
Scott O'Dell Web Page
Lots of information here on Scott O'Dell's life, including the reason for the name change. Elizabeth Hall (Mrs. Scott O'Dell) will respond to e-mail questions.