Published: May 30, 2017
Format: Hardcover Book
Intended Age of Reader: 9-13
Awards: A National Book Award Longlist Title
Upon finishing this novel with my children, I visited the author’s webpage where she had the following quote from Madeleine L’Engle prominently displayed, “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” I thought this was an interesting quote to ponder in light of this novel that is a coming of age story, about growing up and accepting the vulnerability that comes with it.
This novel has a fascinating premise. Nine children live on an island, where no one comes or goes except for once a year when a green boat comes carrying one very small child, and at that time the eldest leaves the island. No one knows where that boat comes from or where it goes, just that there is a nursery rhyme that says the sky will fall if they do not comply. There are many rules in place to ensure that all goes smoothly, either handed down from the previous generations of children or via nursery rhymes. As the novel begins, Jinny loses her best friend Deen, whose turn it is to leave the island. Jinny becomes the eldest and Ess, who has just arrived, is her Care, meaning she will live with and learn from Jinny over the next year all that she needs to in order to survive.
After being brought to this magical world where children can play safely and set up with this mesmerizing, delicious premise, not much happens over the next year. It seems there is a lot of waiting, of expectation, and in between time. Is this what childhood feels like? I would think probably so, in the island’s non-technology driven world. During this year, unlike in Lord of the Flies, things go along just fine. Overall, the children are quite well behaved and keep each other in check.
Anyway, things finally start to get interesting when Jinny refuses to leave the island when the boat returns the following year. She takes the newly arrived youngest, Loo, as her Care and continues to keep Ess under her wing as well. The weather changes, the island becomes more threatening, and Jinny begins to change and develop into a woman. Finally, she realizes that she must leave as the reader is realizing that this whole novel is a metaphor for growing up. It is a metaphor for leaving childhood and entering adulthood. I will say I was mildly disappointed not to be able to find out the story behind Orphan Island, why the children ended up there, and where they went to after. However, if we knew all that.. the metaphor would be lost. This is a magical book that transports the reader to another realm. It will leave you satisfied, but wanting more! This is a book that the more I thought about it in hindsight, the more brilliant I felt it was.
- What do you imagine Deen is saying to Jinny as he leaves the island that she can’t quite make out?
- Where do you suppose this island is? Where do the children come from? Do they have parents? Why would the parents send them off to this island?
- Who do you suppose made up the rules? Why do the rules work so well?
- What are some of the varying teaching methods that the children employ to teach Ess to swim and read? Which ones work and which ones don’t? Why?
- When Jinny decides to stay on the island when it is her turn to leave, why do you suppose the others do not make a bigger deal about it? Does she owe it to them to leave?
- Why do you think Jinny wants to stay? Is it that she wants to hold on to her life on the island (childhood) or is it that she is afraid of moving on (adulthood)?
- Jinny was wearing Ess’s bracelet, called ‘Mama’ that goes missing. What is the significance of the bracelet, it’s disappearance, and its recovery?
- Why does the island become more sinister after Jinny’s decision not to leave the island? Do you think the island is really changing or is it just Jinny’s perception of it?
- Did you enjoy the metaphor that the novel was? What other books can you think of that serve as metaphors for something?
- In this novel there are no other adults. What other books have you read where there are no adults? How do they compare to this book?
- What religious allegories are present in the novel? What is their meaning and significance?