Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder. HarperCollins Children’s, 2017.
Nine on an island, orphans all
Any more, the sky might fall.
This is the rhyme that rules the lives of the nine children who live together on an island. Every year (one guess, but who really keeps track of years?) a green boat comes bringing a new, young child, and taking away the oldest in a ritual called the Change. It’s the Eldest’s job to take care of the new Little, as well as to pass on to the next youngest what the responsibilities of being Eldest entail.
It’s Jinny’s year to be Eldest, but she’s just not ready. She doesn’t understand why her beloved previous Eldest didn’t resist leaving. She’s less than enthusiastic about her new jobs – teaching the new girl, little Ess, reading and swimming, and teaching the next oldest child how to be Eldest. And while she does grow attached to Ess, that only makes her more resentful of the expectation that she will leave when the boat comes back.
The island itself is major part of the story. It’s an island surrounded by mist, with no contact to the outside world other than the yearly boat. That mist will bounce children who jump off cliffs right back on to the island, to their great entertainment. Everything the children absolutely need is just there, with children passing on the knowledge of how to gather food and how to read the ever-dwindling supply of books.
The book is as surrounded in questions as the island is in mist. Are the children really orphans, for example? Where do they come from and go to? But our story is told through Jinny’s eyes, and she also has more questions than answers. The reader can see as she can’t her growing dissatisfaction and questioning of the rules that have been passed down as her beginning adolescence, even as she doesn’t know what that is. (This also serves to make her a somewhat prickly protagonist, even as she realizes too late that she’s hurt her companions.)
Some reviews of this have said it is pure allegory, and while it’s possible to read it as an allegory, it fortunately holds up as a story in its own right. There is no waking up to an ordinary reality at the end, which would have utterly spoiled it for me. It still speaks truthfully to kids about the rocky changes ahead while portraying a realistically bumpy view of a kid utopia. This is both entertaining and thought-provoking, perfect for reading and discussing.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.