Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

I read this novel after reading MentorTexts’ review a few weeks ago.Twelve-year old Martha, a Wisconsin resident, is preparing for her family’s annual beach vacation when Olive Barstow’s mother rings her doorbell. Olive was a fellow seventh-grader who was struck by a car and killed. She had only moved to Martha’s class in the last few months and had been viewed by the kids as “weird”. Olive’s mother hands Martha a page torn from Olive’s journal, telling her that Olive would want her to have it. In this single entry from Olive’s life, Martha learns more about her classmate than she could have ever imagined and is stunned to learn how much they had in common.

“I hope 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,” Olive’s journal reads. Martha is haunted by this journal entry for the rest of the summer, wondering what she ever did to spark Olive’s desire to be her friend. Olive’s sudden and tragic death is also a constant reminder of mortality- her own and those around her, especially her beloved grandmother. Martha spends her summer trying to figure out how to best honor Olive and also figure out her own hopes and dreams. Her steady, predictable life is also changing, as she experiences her first kiss, first crush, a near-death experience, and changing family dynamics.

Kevin Henkes delves into the mind and heart of a twelve-year old girl with surprising results. Martha is average- she isn’t the prettiest girl, the smartest girl, or the most popular. She is everygirl, and I think my students will connect with her because of that. This isn’t an action-packed book by any means. It is very introspective, but you are swept into Martha’s world by Henkes’ wonderful writing. Previously, I have only read Kevin Henkes’ picture books, so I was delightfully surprised at how adept he was when channeling his writing into Martha’s voice. I also loved how he arranged his chapters. Some are long, some only a paragraph or a few sentences. It works perfectly in this novel.

I would love to read this book as a read-aloud. However, I have been noticing that most of my read-alouds focus on female main characters and it’s time for me to go in the male direction. Also, there is a bit of profanity and a few mild sexual references in the book (nothing more than what a student would hear on primetime TV). I am thinking I may hold onto this until later in the year, though!”Olive’s Ocean” by Kevin Henke is a 2004 Newbery Honor book.