Ideas for Learners Promoting Literacy, Inquiry, and Meaningful Learning Experiences
Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes

Book Summary

Olive was killed in an accident, and Martha hardly knew her. Olive's mother gives Martha a page from Olive's journal with Olive's wishes, and one of them was that she and Martha could become friends. As Martha heads to the beach to visit her grandmother, she thinks a lot about how fragile life is, and how quickly relationships change. Whether she is caring for her baby sister, missing her older brother's attention, frustrated with her mother, humiliated by a boy, or worried about how much time she has left with her grandmother, Martha's worries will be familiar to many readers.
Olive's Ocean book cover
Olive's Ocean

Book Review

The author writes beautifully, and handles details of Martha's world with deft realism: the main character wonders whether some of her quirky habits are too childish, and realizes that her grandmother has secrets, just as she does.  The story unfolds over the course of a summer vacation, and raises some good discussion topics about the complex nature of family relationships, and change. There is not a lot of humor or surprise, but Martha's character is dealing with several issues that resonate with the target audience. It is an excellent model to use for student writing activities, as many passages are thoughtfully crafted. The use of profanity may prevent it from being an appropriate choice for school literature circles.
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If embarrassment were a noise, sirens would be blaring from every one of my pores, she thought."
p. 108

Topics and Themes for this book:

  • Family Relationships
  • Growing Up
  • First Romance
  • Summer Vacation
  • Life and Death

Discussion Questions for this book:

The best discussion questions, of course, are generated by and contemplated by readers. These questions are designed to avoid major spoilers about the book, and to provide a starting point for teachers, parents, and student reading groups.

1) How realistically has the author created the relationships between Martha and her siblings? Give examples of incidents that you found especially believable or unrealistic.

2) What do you think about Martha's arrangement with Godbee to share a secret every day? Should older family members reveal personal things about themselves to younger ones? How would Martha's relationship with her mother change if they had a similar arrangement?

3) Based on the clips Jimmy shows Martha, do you think his movie would be something you'd like to see? Why?

4) What does Olive's accident teach Martha about life? How can losing someone you don't know very well affect people in important ways?

5) Do you agree with Martha about the embarrassing moment assignment? Why do you think teachers might give this assignment? Does Martha handle embarrassment effectively in this book?

6) How does Martha change from the beginning of the book to the end?

7) Is it a good or a bad thing to keep some childlike interests and qualities as an adult? What about as a teen? Which childlike things does Martha seem to want to cling to, and can you empathize with her about them, or not?

8) This is a Newbery Honor Book (2004). What are its strengths? Which passages struck you as being particularly powerful, and why?

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