15 Facts About Island of the Blue Dolphins

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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.

1. O'DELL TOOK A LONG ROAD TO WRITING CHILDREN'S NOVELS.

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.

2. ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS WAS BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

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.

3. ONE KEY DETAIL OF THE LONE WOMAN HAS BEEN LOST TO HISTORY.

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.

4. O'DELL INCLUDED A POPULAR BUT UNVERIFIED DETAIL OF THE LONE WOMAN'S TALE.

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.

5. KARANA WAS MUCH YOUNGER THAN HER REAL-LIFE INSPIRATION

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.

6. O'DELL DIDN'T RESEARCH MUCH ABOUT THE NICOLEÑO.

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."

7. THE COMPLETE READER'S EDITION INCLUDED NEW PAGES.

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.

8. ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS WAS ADAPTED INTO A MOVIE

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.

9. SCOTT O'DELL OFFERED AN ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS SEQUEL 16 YEARS LATER.

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."

10. ZIA ALSO PULLED FROM REAL LIFE.

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.

11. THE LONE WOMAN'S CAVE HAS BEEN DISCOVERED.

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.

12. FURTHER DISCOVERIES ON THE REAL ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS HAVE SPARKED CONTROVERSY.

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.

13. IN BOTH REAL LIFE AND FICTION, THE LONE WOMAN DIES SHORTLY AFTER DISCOVERY.

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.

14. SCOTT O'DELL ASSURED HIS LEGACY WITH A SPECIAL AWARD.

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.

15. ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS HAS MAINTAINED POPULARITY FOR OVER 57 YEARS.

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.

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

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