Allison's Book Bag

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

Posted on: September 28, 2013

Olive’s Ocean By Kevin Henkes is different from most novels for young people that I have read. It’s a slow-developing and lyrical story that one will savor like the cream filling of an Oreo cookie. As such, I think it will disappoint some readers but enamor others.

One reviewer wrote that Olive’s Ocean doesn’t have a plot. In a way it does. In the beginning, Olive’s mother comes to visit Martha and deliver a note from her dead daughter which she believes 12-year-old Martha should have. In the middle, Martha and her family spend a summer on Cape Cod, where Martha deals with all kinds of diverse situations, such as the aging of her grandmother, the mid-life crisis of her dad, first loves and betrayals, and the recognition that there’s more to life than what exists in her own little world. In the end, Martha makes a decision about her future career and seeks out Olive’s mom to deliver a gift that she believes Olive would have enjoyed if she had lived. In another way, the story line resembles the gentle unfolding of a flower. While Olive’s Ocean does start with the drama of an accident, Henkes basically uses it to tantalize his readers, reel them in, and keep them hooked. The heart of his tale actually lies in a low-key coming-of-age story about Martha.

My major criticism of Olive’s Ocean is that despite its abundance of short chapters and brief sentences, it could prove a difficult read for some of its intended audience. The chapters don’t always follow chronological order. For example, the seventh chapter suddenly jumps back to the day of Olive’s accident, with the title serving as the only warning of this flashback. Also, the sentences are sometimes vague: “The longer Martha mulled over the coincidences, the more startling they became.” In addition, the revelations which come to Martha often seem beyond her years: “Life at Godbee’s seemed old-fashioned to Martha. But the things Martha could not live without at home, she barely missed when she was at her grandmother’s place.” Those of us book lovers who grew up on the classics will probably enjoy the quiet resonance of Olive’s Ocean, but modern readers may grow impatient with the sometimes challenging passages.

I began my review by saying that Olive’s Ocean is different from most novels for young people that I have read. This is partly due to Henkes’ meticulous attention to his characters’ emotions. For example, there’s a conversation in which Martha’s mom is sharing details of her job but Martha is tuning her out because her thoughts are elsewhere. Besides having Martha’s mom acknowledge, “I can tell I’m boring you,” Henkes also shows her physical reaction: “She’d risen from the bed and was walking away. A muscle in her cheek moved.” Such a tiny and subtle detail, but it succinctly suggests that Martha’s mom feels rejected. Some reviewers condemn Henkes for Martha’s angry outbursts with her family. To me, Henkes realistically captures the turmoil of adolescent emotions: “What used to provide a sense of pride for Martha had, as she’d become older, become a source of embarrassment…. Suddenly Martha’s bed felt huge and empty without her mother sitting beside her. She wanted to curl up with her mother the way she used to when she was younger and life was uncomplicated.” One of my favorite group of scenes are those that show the blossoming romance between Martha and the Manning boys. In television drama, young adults always seem to quickly move from an awkward proclamation of interest to easy and casual physical embraces. Not so in Olive’s Ocean, which I greatly relate to and appreciate.

That Olive’s Ocean is an atypical novel will be considered a strike against it for some, but is also perhaps why it won the Newbery Honor. I commend Henkes for writing a novel that is true to his vision of adolescence. I’m excited that this weekend I will have the opportunity to hear him speak at a luncheon at the Plum Creek Children’s Book Festival. You can be sure I will be posting a report on the event here at Allison’s Book Bag.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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