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olive’s ocean

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

A Greenwillow Book (HarperCollins), 2003.

Tradepaper, 217 pages. Juvenile/Teen Fiction*.

Sometimes life can change in an instant

Martha Boyle and Olive Barstow could have been friends, but they weren’t. Weeks after a tragic accident, all that is left are eerie connections between the two girls, former classmates who both kept the same secret without knowing it. Now, even while on vacation at the ocean, Martha can’t stop thinking about Olive. Things only get more complicated when Martha begins to like Jimmy Manning, a neighbor boy she used to despise. What is going on? Can life for Martha be the same ever again? ~Publisher’s Comments

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The reason Kevin Henkes Olive’s Ocean made the top ten list of most frequently challenged books of 2007? “Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language.”

I am with this 2008 review by Davenport Public Library’s Kid’s Blog, “The reason for Olive’s Ocean being challenged is a bit of a head-scratcher.” I also agree with their assumption that the “Sexually Explicit” likely references older brother Vince and 12-year-old Martha joking about their parents’ “MSB” (“Morning Sex Behavior”) on page 52. “”When they do it in the morning,” Vince had informed Martha earlier that summer during one of their nightly chats, “they’re all giggly and kissy and weird for at least an hour afterward. It’s unmistakable.” The family dynamic in Olive’s Ocean is one of affection and teasing. And apparently a family where s-e-x is a usable word, a topic of conversation. One that can cause Martha to blush in the direction of a loving relationship she might one day find herself. In the meantime, it is holding hands and first kisses that concern Martha most immediately. It is all rather sweet actually.

And/Or is it Martha acknowledging when thinking about love and a boy and holding hands “a current of excitement, and one of self-consciousness. […] There was a strange sensation in her belly, too” (106). Is it all too “sex ed?” Are there not enough words in the English language (or other) to use rather than “Explicit?”

As for “Offensive language”…I think the word ‘prick’ is used and quite appropriately. Olive’s Ocean is hardly coarse, even for 4th and 5th graders. And it is an older boy using the words, using the statements like a boy his age would. Henkes drawing of the older brother Vince is quite wonderful–one of the better (and more believable) elder brothers in literature. A family that is portrayed as being real with one another, even if that means helplessly irritating one another, fuels an expressive girl who observes and records–the narrator.

Not knowing what the actual accusation against Olive’s Ocean was, I thought it would have to do with whatever sinister secret the girls, Martha and Olive, share. The secret isn’t sinister, so there went that. The secret is innocent, sweet. The second stretching thought was the excerpt I’d read, “Chapter 54: Sea Creature,” where Olive sinks under the water and considers briefly of staying there, under the water. Within context, this is a baptismal moment of embracing nature, the natural progression of the things, the growing up, the becoming as others have before her, with her, and behind her. She lets go of a few important things that would hold her back, the kind that would steal from her (ie the preciousness that should be a first kiss, etc). Olive’s Ocean illustrates lives that can be awkward and scary, but also warm and reassuring.

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I appreciate when juvenile fiction is creative in their storytelling. I am really taken with the novels in verse, even though, at times, they are intimidating. Olive’s Ocean is not told in verse, but the chapter tend to be short, as short as two paragraphs when necessary. Some are more prose like than others; and I wouldn’t say they could be independent (that might take a second read). Chapters could be linear, they could be looking back, but none of it confusing, nothing beyond the young reader’s grasp. Kevin Henkes has a wonderful sensibility when it comes to pace and portrait here, brevity and motion; natural segues.

What makes Olive’s Ocean beautiful are the relationships: some old, others changing into something new, and some that never would be, some never could be. Some relationships are cut short before they could really blossom, others hold promise of somewhere lovely. One of the greatest values of this read is the affection between Martha and her grandmother Godbee. They decide to tell each other something new-to-the-other-person every day of the vacation. It is a powerful pairing, a young woman discovering herself and an older woman losing herself; the younger creating memories, and the other resorting to those which are already created. The Martha/Olive pairing is nice–We see Olive through Martha at moments, one ghosting the other. I like the Jimmy/Tate juxtaposition, two paths, and then even a third in Vince.

Writers writing Writers is not unusual. In a way, a writerly protagonist (or even a readerly or artistic one) is a reliable one; they are observers–of other and self–and tend to harbor a better lexicon than most. I think Martha may be among the most brilliantly flawed yet, however, and this excites me. When Martha decides she wants to be a Writer: she begins–and struggles. She wants to write a poem.

She had abandoned her story about Olive, convinced that it was not very good, nor worthy of Olive. But she knew that she wanted to be a writer more than ever. She held on to this feeling without trying to start a new novel just yet. She decided she would try a poem instead–the best poem ever–reasoning that it would be easier to write and to finish, only to discover that this was difficult as well. She ended up with a page of first lines. […] After rereading her hours worth of work, she thought she wouldn’t try to write anything else until she was back home in Wisconsin. (174-76)

There are some great first lines, but Martha illustrates that wanting doesn’t mean having, or having it easy. Being/becoming someone doesn’t come without work or struggle, and even some amount of deciding. So some things work out; some do not. Henkes gives us a protagonist who is capable, but also one with potential–and determination.

Olive’s Ocean is an easy recommendation for budding young artists/writers. It is a good one for those grieving a loss while still having to live. It honors memory and expression and daring, as well as growing up and adjusting and clinging to the family you have. The Boyle family’s love for one another is built into everything, even the arguing and snide and stupid sounding remarks. So, if you are looking for a book with positive family dynamics in an already pleasurably unusual coming-of-age novel… This is a good novel to promote getting to know that shy person, the overlooked, the new, and to not waste our opportunities.

There are so many points of great discussion from a book that is just a pleasure to read. If some of the questions are uncomfortable, consider this good practice and hope for more uncomfortable questions in the future, because that at least means they are still sharing.

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*My Library has Olive’s Ocean in the Teen section, I think to catch the Middle School crowd. Powell’s lists ages 10-14. A mature reader of 9 could easily tackle this one.

note: You should recognize Kevin Henkes name from picture books like: Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse, Wemberly Worried, and our family’s favorite and constant companion with Natalya growing up Chrysanthemum. If you haven’t a 10 year-old-or up to read with, there is a catalog of Henkes’ picture books to try to exhaust.

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