Island of the Blue Dolphins was published in 1960. At the time, author Scott O'Dell had only written books for adults, but this novel became his most famous and enduring. It has won the Newbery Medal, has been adapted into film, has inspired a sequel, and remains well-known even today.
The novel is based on the true story of a Native American woman who was abandoned on San Nicolas island, and lived there for much of her life (please see the "Additional Content" section of this note for more information on her). When she was finally rescued, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island became famous for her unusual story. Although she died only a few weeks after moving to the mainland, she was a tourist attraction during that time, and her story remained well known in California for decades after her death. O'Dell stumbled upon the incident while researching a nonfiction book about California, and was compelled enough to write a novel about her. He did not originally intend to write a children's book; it was the advice of his friend Maud Lovelace, a children's writer, that convinced him to tailor it to young people.
The novel follows Karana, a young Native American girl who is part of a small tribe on the remote San Nicolas Island, off the coast of California. After most of her tribe's men are killed in a battle with rival hunters, they leave the island to live on the mainland. However, Karana is accidentally left behind, and must survive alone for many years before being rescued.
In writing Island of the Blue Dolphins, O'Dell fictionalized many aspects of the Lone Woman's story. For example, the Lone Woman was an adult when she was left behind, and in her fifties when she was rescued. Recent archeological discoveries have revealed scraps of information about how the Lone Woman survived on the island – for instance, we now know that she probably lived in a cave and spent time making jewelry for herself. However, her time on the island remains mysterious, and even less was known about it when O'Dell wrote the novel in 1960. Because of this, much of what he writes about Karana's survival strategies is based on speculation rather than fact. Likewise, he most likely made Karana younger than the woman both to attract young readers and to make the girl's challenge more overwhelming.
Island of the Blue Dolphins became a bestseller when it was released, and it won the Newbery Medal in 1961. It was adapted into a film in 1964. O'Dell later wrote a sequel called Zia, which is told from the perspective of Karana's niece, Zia. Although that novel focuses on life for Native Americans in the Mission Santa Barbara, it also describes the difficulties that Karana had in adjusting to life on the mainland after being rescued.