O'Dell, born on May 23, 1898, entered the world by a different name, Odell Gabriel Scott. Related to the explorer and author Sir Walter Scott, O'Dell grew up in Los Angeles, California, when it was still a rural community. Horses out-numbered automobiles. O'Dell loved to read, and he enjoyed the sea. Though his family moved frequently because his father worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, they never lived far from the ocean. With water nearby, adventures waited for O'Dell around every corner.
A smart boy in school, O'Dell never found reason to study. His teachers praised his intelligence and wished they had more students like him in their classrooms. He graduated from Long Beach Polytechnic High School believing himself to be gifted scholastically as well as gifted physically as a track star. Before he ventured off to college, World War I began, and O'Dell enlisted. Training to be an officer, he earned his commission. Yet the war ended, and he didn't see action abroad. Wanting to be a writer of historical novels like his ancestor, O'Dell attended college, four colleges in total. He realized with shock that he wasn't as bright or as athletic as he thought he was. Many smarter, quicker students attended college, and they had learned how to study along the way to higher education. As he moved from college to college, he took the courses that interested him and advanced the learning of his chosen craft. He studied for knowledge rather than for a diploma.
After leaving Stanford, O'Dell found work in Hollywood at the Palmer Photoplay Company where he edited movie scripts. At this point in his life, in 1924, O'Dell wrote his first book. Moving on with his film career, he became a set dresser for Paramount Pictures and then a cameraman for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. While filming the silent version of Ben Hur, O'Dell found Italy captivating and stayed. He took classes at the University of Rome and lived in the villa once occupied by Galileo. Though he penned his first adult novel in Italy, it wasn't ever published, and he destroyed it. His time in Italy over, O'Dell returned to the United States.
His employment this time involved writing. O'Dell worked for the Los Angeles Times as a book editor and then at the Los Angeles Mirror as a book columnist. While typing his name for the by-line on an article, the typesetter confused O'Dell's name. Previously he had been writing using his given name, Odell Scott. However, the new name, Scott O'Dell, struck him, and he changed it legally to this name we recognize today. O'Dell continued penning books, deciding to be a full-time author, and wrote a novel in 1934. He contributed articles and stories to magazines and newspapers before World War II broke out. Then O'Dell volunteered for the U.S. Air Force and later resumed writing adult books. He also returned to being a book editor, this time for the Los Angeles Daily News until it went out of business. The world of free-lancing writing beckoned him again.
Having written exclusively for adults thus far in his career, O'Dell, already sixty years old, wrote a novel for children. Only at first, he didn't realize what he'd done. Coming across a story about a girl who lived alone on an island for eighteen years, he reconstructed it into a novel. When he showed it to a friend, she thought it was written for children and was rather well-written, too. Critically acclaimed, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, earned O'Dell a Newbery Medal in 1961. During his new career as a children's author, he penned twenty-five novels in a time-span of twenty-nine years. Of these books, four won the Newbery Honor Award: Sing Down the Moon, The King's Fifth, Back Star, Bright Dawn, and The Black Pearl. He also received the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lifetime achievement in 1972. Toward the end of his life, O'Dell created the Scott O'Dell Historical Fiction Award to go to a writer of a historical fiction novel set in the Americas. O'Dell himself won the $5,000 prize in 1986 when The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books awarded him.
Exploring historical events, portraying his love and respect for wildlife, delving into timeless inner struggles and survival, and exemplifying the triumph of right over wrong, O'Dell has touched several generations of readers through his novels. While he was alive, his fan mail was tremendous as kids wrote to him, asking questions and thanking him for his books. A few of his books have been made into films and translated into several languages. Writing up until his death, O'Dell passed away on October 15, 1989, from prostrate cancer. His memory lives on as many new readers find fascination in O'Dell's richly rewarding fiction.