Rummanah Aasi
  I've meant to pick up Kevin Henke's Olive's Ocean for quite some time. The book has received many starred reviews as well as nominated for the Newbery Award in 2004. Olive's Ocean goes to show that even award and critically acclaimed books aren't safe from challenges either.

Description (from the book's inside panel): Martha Boyle and Olive Barstow could have been friends. But they weren't-and now all that is left are eerie connections between two girls who were in the same grade at school and who both kept the same secret without knowing it.
  Now Martha can't stop thinking about Olive. A family summer on Cape Cod should help banish those thoughts; instead, they seep in everywhere. And this year Martha's routine at her beloved grandmother's beachshide house is complicated by the Manning boys. Jimmy, Tate, Todd, Luke, and Leo. But especially Jimmy. What if, what if, what if, what if? The world can change in a minute.

Review: Olive's Ocean opens with a very simple yet powerful opening scene that stirs our emotions. Our main character, Martha, opens the door and is greeted by a strange woman holding an envelope announces who announces: "Olive Barstow was my daughter." Olive, a schoolmate that Martha had barely noticed, has recently been killed in a car accident. The envelope contains an extract from Olive's diary in which she shares her dreams, including the hope that Martha, who she states is "the nicest person in my whole entire class," would become her friend. With this original and compelling opening scene Henkes draws us into one summer in the life of a familiar, convincing, likeable twelve-year-old girl. A girl who is slowly losing her childhood innocence as she realized that we are all mortal.
  I liked Martha right away. She is a quiet, introvert who keeps her dreams of becoming a famous writer a secret in fears that her aspiring-writer father will think she is just copying him. She slowly comes out of her shell as her eyes are open to the world around her. Martha experiences at her grandmother's house has all the elements of a traditional summer novel: a house by the sea, playing at the beach and board games, and a summer crush. The book's setting offers the idea of summer as the time between, the hinge time of growth and change.
  What sets Olive's Ocean apart from all the other summer novels is that at its core the book is about the web of relationships with Martha. Like many younger siblings have witness and experienced, Martha's older and beloved brother begins to pull away, the first indication that times are changing. Martha sees her grandmother with new eyes, one who has a world of experience yet still retains vulnerability and insecurities in her old age. Martha and her mother can't seem to stop irritating each other. Her summer crush turns out differently from what Martha expected. All of these relationships are created and feel natural. The heavy issues of realizing death's sudden appearance are handled with care, grace, and humor. You can tell that the author has respect for his characters and they all come alive on the page. Although we don't know who the real Olive is, we do get a chance to see what her life could have been as we vicariously live through Martha's experiences. Olive's Ocean is a deceptively clever and complex look at how the life of another can add dimension to our own existence.

Rating: 4 stars


Why it was challenged/banned: Olive's Ocean was number 59 on the list for the most challenged book from 2000-2009 due to the book's "sexually explicit content and offensive language". I'm a bit surprised at the sexually explicit content charge since nothing even remotely sexual happens besides a kiss, which was even detailed. I'm guessing this claim was raised when Martha's 13 year old brother makes an offhand comment that his parents are exhibiting "morning sex behavior". The comment is something that I would expect a boy undergoing puberty to say. I'm sure many reasons would gloss this over and realize that the parents are happy because they have resolved their problems. There is mild language in the book, but nothing that you wouldn't find on a middle school playground or even a PG movie. 

Words of Caution: Mild language. I would recommend this book to strong Grade 5 readers and up.

If you like this book try: Shug by Jenny Han or The Austin Family Chronicles (particularly A Ring of Endless Light) by Madeline L'Engle
4 Responses
  1. Anne Bennett Says:

    I am continually shocked at the reasons and the books that have been banned/challenged. Where's Waldo was banned because of a "wardrobe malfunction" in the 1987 version a woman is topless sunbathing...so if you happen to notice it you might see the side view of a nipple. Gasp!


  2. Missie Says:

    How the heck does a kiss quality as sexually explicit? And I think it is a good thing that the brother can recognize authentic love between his parents. *sighs*

    Thanks for the review of this one, I hadn't heard of it before.


  3. Jenny Says:

    Wow, I got all choked up just thinking about someone coming to my door with a journal entry from their deceased child that says they wanted nothing more than to be my friend. *dies* And I cannot even begin to understand the ban on this one if there was nothing more than a mention of "morning sex behavior". Clearly reading that is going to make me run of an exhibit my own such behavior:)


  4. nora Says:

    i too, found this on the banned books shelf, and since i absolutely love mr. henkes' pictures books, i picked it up. how on earth, i wondered, could the author of "wemberly worried" write a book that ended up on the challenged list? the answer is that clearly there are people in this world with waaaayyy too much time on their hands, and brains the size of wrinkled peas. this was a charming book, one that i would recommend to any child in that "tween" age group. i would sure rather have kids reading a book like this than anything from "the babysitter's club" or any other books of that ilk.


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