By Sara L. Schwebel, editor of Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition

Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition

While preparing Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition, I was shocked to learn how significantly the text of individual copies of Scott O’Dell’s Newbery-winning novel differed. Island of the Blue Dolphins is not Sister Carrie, with its complicated publication history, or Walden, famous for its textual variants. It is a twentieth-century Newbery winner published with numerous printing but just three editions: the first (1960), a thirtieth anniversary edition (1990), and a fiftieth anniversary edition (2010). Given the availability of late twentieth-century computer software, I had thought the editions would be identical.

How wrong I was.

Houghton Mifflin first sold the paperback rights to Island of the Blue Dolphins in 1971, and this opened the floodgates to variants in U.S. editions. Dell retyped the first edition, and in doing so inserted a series of variants. The first printing of the first Dell paperback, for example, introduced 6 variants in punctuation, omitted one word (the pronoun “I,” in chapter 8), and made seven printing errors, ranging from a lower case “i” that is missing its dot to a lower case “m” that is only half printed.

In some but not all reprintings of this Dell paperback, errors were corrected. For example, the Laurel-Leaf Historical Fiction imprint published in 1978 corrects two missing periods and a missing comma, as well as the missing pronoun “I;” however, it inserts a different error (“though” for “thought,” in chapter 8). The 1987 Yearling paperback is identical to the 1971 Dell first printing with one exception: it corrects a missing open quotation mark in chapter 8. But bafflingly, the 1999 Newbery-Yearling imprint reverts to the original 1971 Dell paperback: no corrections are made at all. These variants, while slightly annoying, are largely insignificant. And this is where things stood until 1990.

Houghton Mifflin celebrated Island of the Blue Dolphins’ thirtieth birthday by issuing a gift edition of the book illustrated by Ted Lewin. This cloth edition made a series of welcome corrections to Houghton Mifflin’s first edition; most of these corrects are inconsequential (commas, subjunctive verbs, etc.), but three are interesting and substantive.

  • A Houghton Mifflin copyeditor initially objected to O’Dell’s use of the word “rooms” to describe the inside of Karana’s cave in chapter 14, but editor Austin Olney overruled. Thirty years later, copyeditors won the day and the word was changed to “brush.”
  • Humorously, O’Dell’s math was corrected in chapter 15. A grade schooler wrote the author in 1986, pointing out that Karana killed three dogs with arrows in chapter 10 and shot two dogs in chapter 12; thus, she should not report in chapter 15 that she had only killed four of the wild dogs in Rontu’s pack. The young boy’s correction is finally made in Houghton Mifflin’s 1990 cloth edition.
  • Most importantly, the press corrected a longstanding typographical error made by O’Dell and missed by all his copyeditors: in chapter 24, Karana imagines her sister married to the wrong man – the old chief (his name is Kimko, but a typo made him Kimki) rather than the handsome young Nanko. [Others had noticed and attempted to correct this error earlier, but did so incorrectly. A British paperback edition, for example, changes the printed “Kimko” to “Kimki” – this is at least a character in the book, but it is clearly the wrong one!]

Because Dell retained exclusive rights to print Island of the Blue Dolphins in paper, Houghton Mifflin’s important 1990 corrections had little effect on American readers’ experience with the novel through the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first. Dell continued to reprint the novel using its own plates, and readers continued to purchase both new and used paperbacks and Houghton Mifflin book club editions (cheap hardbacks). Errors and variants existed in both.

Widespread change came about only in 2010, when Houghton Mifflin regained the rights to the paperback and reissued the novel with a new introduction by Lois Lowry. If you purchase a paperback copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins online or in a big box store today, this fiftieth anniversary edition is likely what you will get.

And it is error-ridden.


Instead of using the computer files from 1990, Houghton Mifflin Hardcourt retyped the book. There are more than 60 variants between the first edition, first printing of Island of the Blue Dolphins and the first printing, third edition of the novel. To its credit, the 2010 edition does include the three substantive corrections made in the 1990 edition, noted above. But it also employs a heavy editorial hand, adding words when O’Dell preferred none. And it inserts a host of embarrassing errors including:

  • “They were beating across the rocks” instead of “beating against the rock” (chapter 7)
  • “the stone for the tips and the features” instead of “for the tips and the feathers” (chapter 9)
  • For came with the night” instead of “Fog came with the night” (chapter 10)
  • slashing water high into the air” instead of “splashing water high into the air” (chapter 13)
  • “The ship stayed in Coal Cove” instead of “Coral Cove (chapter 29)

In the 1980s, distinguished librarian Kathleen T. Horning published an article in the Journal of Youth Services in Libraries titled, “Are You Sure That Book Won the Caldecott Medal? Variant Printings and Editions of Three Caldecott Medal Books.” Horning explained that just because a book bears the American Library Association’s shiny Newbery or Caldecott sticker on its cover does not mean that its text is identical to that the award committee prized. Booksellers place stickers on all printings. “Who is responsible for quality control,” Horning asks? It’s a good question.

Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition reprints the first edition, first printing of Scott O’Dell’s novel and indicates, via footnotes, the substantive changes made in later editions. It also flags errors that were missed by O’Dell and copyeditors in 1960, 1990, and 2010. For example, in chapter 11, Karana’s description of where the village of Ghalas-at was located is internally inconsistent and is a legacy of an early map of the Island of the Blue Dolphins O’Dell had drawn and abandoned (this early map, published in the Reader’s Edition, is housed in the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota Libraries). Critical editions are valuable in part because they identify variants and can be used to restore authorial intent.

What I learned in preparing Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition is that while most of us don’t think twice before ordering paperbacks for our undergraduate syllabi—or our children—perhaps we should. The fact that errors abound in the most recent edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and that variants are everywhere present in Dell and Dell-Yearling paperback printings of the novel makes me suspect that the same is true for dozens of other popular children’s books, whether or not they bear the ALA’s Newbery stamp of approval.

Scott O’Dell was the author of numerous books for children and adults. He received the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1972.

Sara L. Schwebel is Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, author of Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms, and editor of the Lone Woman and Last Indians digital archive.