Award-Winning AWB (Award-Winning-Books) 2012 Books Dusty Bookshelves and Library Loot GB Challenges Reading Themes

Self Discovery and a Coming of Age in Kevin Henkes’ Olive’s Ocean

Kevin Henkes’ ties the story of a girl’s accidental death to another girl’s life. While there is no friendship between the dead girl Olive, and our protagonist Martha, their stories are linked by a diary entry Olive’s mother gives to our heroine:

“…I hope that I get to know Martha Boyle next year (or this summer). I hope that we can be friends. That is my biggest hope. She is the nicest person in my whole entire class.”

Tragedies, especially those close to home, force people to examine their lives. For Martha, Olive’s death and this little peek into her inner world and the similarities in their hopes made everything too real and too eerie. I think of Olive as a catalyst to Martha’s growth and coming of age and as the narrator puts it:

“Minutes earlier, she had been packing her bags for vacation, feeling completely happy and now she felt different—altered. The longer Martha mulled over the coincidences, the more startling they become.”

Coming of Age

I find it strange how all coming of age stories seem to happen during the summer. Doesn’t it? Or am I making a hasty generalization?  There is no sexual awakening in this book, but the coming-of-age elements come from Martha’s discovery of herself and what matters to her. The reader is given the opportunity to see her grow within the context of her family. We see her try to find herself as she tells her grandmother Godbee something about her every day. We see her find herself slowly accepting the growing distance between her and her older brother Vince as a function of growing up. We watch her find confidence in her dreams and in her interaction with the opposite sex.

It is these little elements put together in a story about family, about being a girl, and about oneself that makes this a wonderful coming of age story. It is both familiar and unfamiliar. We’ve been through something similar, while at the same time recognize how Martha’s story is unique to hers and our story unique to ours. Yet, what the older reader in me discovers is that I’ve been through similar situations and so as I turn the page and watch her navigate through situations that she discovers there’s always a bright side to things.

Olive’s Shadow

Olive acts as the anchor that allows Martha to think of her life differently. After all, death among young people makes things in our lives, no matter how difficult, seemingly trivial. It is through Olive’s Shadow, the connection between Martha and her, that pulls Martha through. It is Olive’s death that puts things in perspective for her. It makes her think of death as more real for her aging grandmother. It also makes her want more out of her life or better yet dare to think more of what is ahead of her. This shines through best when she’s filming with Jimmy:

She said: “Now I wish I had known her (Olive) better”

She Said: “I’ll never know why she thought I was so nice…”

…She Said: “I’ll keep the journal page forever.”

She Said: “Twelve is too young to die.”

The words were stopping, and she was left with a hollow space inside her. ..As darkness tightened around her, the knowledge she had buried became vividly realized: If Olive could die, then so could I. So could anybody. Anytime.

“I don’t want to die”

Full Circles and Bravery

I wish as I write this review I’ve seen Brave. I have a feeling it would have been a great tie up with this story. Anyway, the novel touches on bravery. By bravery I do not mean the kind we find in war, but a different sort of courage that requires a person to overcome her fears, move forward, and face life – which can be scary. Living has always been scary, after all life is filled with uncertainty. It is this bravery that Martha learns and recognizes in Olive: The bravery to hope and live.  Learning a little more about Olive’s life when she came back from her vacation and recalling her diary entry, Martha recognized the bravery of a girl who dared to hope despite her seemingly difficult life. Martha recognizes that bravery and honors it, while at the same time experiencing a change in herself. Henkes, I believe, captured this new sense of life after such a realization with Martha running from Olive’s old home to her house and catching her breath then saying “I’m Home” as she opened the door.

The line “I’m Home” can be taken literally or figuratively. I felt it was an apt statement to a story of a girl who for the duration of summer sought herself while exploring the meaning of another girl’s death. The phrase felt like the complete evolution of caterpillar to butterfly, wherein the slow, meandering process speeds into a completion of the butterfly.

Olive’s Ocean is a book that pushes the young mind to introspect and see their lives in a challenging perspective. In a world wherein young lives are more fragile, Kevin Henkes’ book feels relevant. It touches on life’s fragility as well as the beauty of mortality in its promise of hope for those brave enough to face life.

Newbery Honor Book. AWB Reading Challenge Update: 71 (35)

7 comments on “Self Discovery and a Coming of Age in Kevin Henkes’ Olive’s Ocean

  1. Hi Iphigene, I think I have a Kevin Henkes book in my shelf, but I can’t be too sure. His writing looks fluid and heartfelt. I should check it out too. Thank you for your review filled with reflections (with a hint of nostalgia). 🙂


    • I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, but only got to buy it recently. More than anything it was the title and cover that attracted me to the book, but its a nostalgic read in many way. 🙂


  2. I just discovered this book last year, Iphigene, and thought it so powerful. It was recommended to me by a student. Thanks for your ideas about it.


    • Hi Linda,
      Yes it is a powerful read. Another thing i love about this book how it presents how connected we all are. In this day and age we take this for granted. Thanks for dropping by and You’re welcome. Glad to be able to share my thoughts on the book.


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