Olive’s Ocean
Kevin Henkes
2005
Newbery Honor

Olive’s Ocean is an intriguing book, but I think Henkes’ true genius lies in his picture books. Reading a book with only his text just seemed to be missing something!

Overall, I enjoyed this short book. Short chapters, sometimes only a paragraph or two, enhance the flow of the narrative. Henkes captures well the ambivalence middle schoolers often feel towards their parents/families–loving them one minute and hating them or being embarrassed by them the next. He shows Martha learning about herself and her family throughout the book: she begins to see her parents more as people (not merely her parents), learns about boys (think: crush, betrayal, first kiss), gains a closer relationship with her brother, and (my personal favorite) grows much closer to her grandmother, Godbee. One thing that I also appreciate is the portrayal of a family who experiences tension with each other but which is still stable. This is normal and so often absent from books: a mother and father who clearly are a unit/stable, but who do occasionally have tension.* Martha and her brother Vince spit angry comments back and forth on occasion, but they are clearly united nonetheless.

At the opening of the book, we find out that Martha’s classmate, Olive, has recently died in a car/bike wreck. No one really knew Olive, but, according to a diary page Olive’s mother gives Martha, Olive had thought that Martha was nice. The diary page reveals some striking similarities between Olive and Martha (for instance, they both want(ed) to become writers). This poignant opening overshadows the book and Martha’s thoughts while they’re on their annual summer vacation at Godbee’s house. I thought this added some good depth to the book, but I think the overall tone in the book is too heavy. This adds a little more oomph even to the middle school level boy/girl relationships, making them feel a bit more sexual than any actual words in the text imply. Absolutely nothing more than simple hand holding, a first kiss, and the usual stomach butterflies happens, but somehow the text lends it a bit more weight than necessary. I can’t really put my finger on it. There are also a few bad words sprinkled in, but they didn’t bother me.

Recommended Age Range: I think 10-12 year old girls would enjoy this most.

Things to Note/Discuss

  • *At one point in the book, the parents are kissing in the kitchen and brother Vince makes a comment to Martha that they are exhibiting “MSB: Morning Sex Behavior.” Very little else is said, but this may make some parents uncomfortable and/or want to make sure this book is given to a middle school student, not an elementary school student. I, personally, am glad there’s a positive reference to married sexuality instead of all the hype about teen sexuality we usually see!
  • Martha realizes that people can die in a second, that you don’t really have a guarantee about the future. Have you ever thought about that? Will your body last forever? (Great tie-in to a children’s catechism question here! We have souls as well as bodies and our souls will last forever).
  • Which family member of Martha’s do you like the most? Which person in your own family do you feel closest to? How well do you know your grandparents? What can you do to get to know them better?
  • What did you think about Jimmy’s treatment of Martha? Did you suspect he was that kind of character from the beginning? Why or why not?
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