Scott O’Dell, 91; ‘Writer of Books That Children Read’


Scott O’Dell, who liked to say that he was a “writer of books that children read” rather than a “writer of children’s books,” has died in Mt. Kisco, N.Y.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that O’Dell, a native Angeleno who may have won more awards than any other contemporary author of children’s books, was 91 when he died Sunday of prostate cancer.

The author of “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” the allegorical tale of a young Indian girl left alone on a coastal California island for 18 years, was a book editor for the old Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Mirror and had written five books for adults before turning to historical fiction for children.

“The only reason I write is to say something,” he said in a 1984 interview. “I’ve forsaken adults because they’re not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.”


O’Dell’s books, which often featured female protagonists, won numerous awards. “Island of the Blue Dolphins” won the John Newbery prize in 1961 for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, as chosen by the American Library Assn..

It also at one time was used as a textbook in the Los Angeles and in other school districts. It was made into a 1964 film featuring Celia Kaye.

“He won more awards than any children’s author I know of,” said Walter Lorraine, the director of children’s books at O’Dell’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin of New York.

Other O’Dell books to win Newbery awards were “Sing Down the Moon,” “The King’s Fifth” and “The Black Pearl.” He also was selected for the 1972 Hans Christian Andersen Medal as the author whose body of work has made the greatest contribution to children’s literature.


Educated at Occidental College, Stanford and the University of Wisconsin, O’Dell was a cinematographer in the 1920s before turning to writing.

His first novel, “Woman of Spain” (1934), was aimed at adult audiences, as were “Hill of the Hawk” and “The Sea Is Red.”

But it was “Dolphin” that made O’Dell a well-known author. He wrote it, he told The Times in 1961, in anger over the number of hunters that were killing wildlife near his San Diego-area home and to emphasize that “life in all its manifestations is one. . . . Each individual needs to develop himself to the extent of his capacity and beyond.” He then quoted Thoreau: “We must transgress our own limits.”

His other books for “children that read” include “The Dark Canoe,” “Journey to Jericho,” “Child of Fire,” “Zia” and “Carlota.”

His latest book, “My Name Is Not Angelica,” is about an 18th-Century slave revolt in the West Indies. It is to be published this month.

Survivors include his wife, Elizabeth, a daughter, a son, a sister and seven grandchildren.