Ice Island

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Ice Island Book Poster Image
Tense adventure as dogsled run becomes race for survival.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

There is a wealth of information in Ice Island about local culture and customs in Alaska, from the Iditarod and Yupik tribal traditions to changing weather patterns and the implications for the indigenous way of life. But, like Tatum's canny homeschooling mom (a teacher before they moved to Alaska), the author puts a lot of the lessons in terms of the race, the dogs, and what's good for them. And, like Tatum, the reader is likely to learn a thing or two about both human and canine friends along the way.

Positive Messages

After a spectacular and life-threatening error in judgment, Tatum listens as her mother says, "Everybody messes up, honey. It's part of life. The point is to recognize mistakes for what they are -- and learn from them." This exchange, early in the book, serves her well later as only her determination and ability to make the right choices can save the day.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though she doesn't always make the right decision -- and pays the price -- Tatum is smart, resourceful, and conscientious; she's passionate in her pursuit of excellence in the dog sled world, both in her love for the dogs and her love for the sport. Her parents, both her harried mother and her absent-in-the-oil-fields dad, love her and strike a balance between inspiring her imagination and providing discipline and support. Cole's grandfather in particular, as well as some of the other Native elders, offer insight into the area's traditional ways and the pressures they face.


Tatum is conflicted about killing animals; at one point the dogs kill a caribou and eat the meat to survive. In one scene, a polar bear hide is stretched out to dry outdoors in the Yupik village; at a community gathering, there are tribal dances commemorating hunting rituals, and the Yupik people discuss what happens when they catch a whale.


 One of the dogs has puppies at a surprising moment.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ice Island is a fast-paced, exciting story of 13-year-old Tatum, her friend Cole, and their sled dogs -- stranded on their own in the wilds of Alaska after an unexpected storm. They must all use a lot of judgment, courage, and resourcefulness as they face much physical danger, from getting caught in avalanches to falling through thin ice that's covered by a deceptive blanket of snow. There is frequent, matter-of-fact discussion of dog "pee" and dog and other animal excrement in contexts appropriate to the story, along with the occasional witticism about avoiding yellow snow. In one scene the dogs kill a caribou and eat the meat to survive.

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What's the story?

Thirteen-year-old Tatum is obsessed with sled-dog racing and dreams of being in the Iditarod, so she's thrilled when her mom gets a temporary job at a remote Alaskan resort and takes Tatum along. Before long she's befriended a local boy who shares her interest, and when they're caught in a storm during what's supposed to be a short afternoon run, they and their dogs must call on all their resources to survive.

Is it any good?

Author Shahan is primarily a travel writer, and she passionately describes the treacherously beautiful, blinding white landscape that is home to sled dogs and the people who love them. ICE ISLAND captures the precariousness of life on the frontier, the ease with which everything can change in an instant, and the way your very survival and that of your loved ones depends on how well you respond. The novel also conveys a lot of common sense and good values, including the ability to solve the problems that result from having made the wrong decision earlier.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Alaska's Iditarod sled-dog race -- what do you know about the history? Were you surprised to learn how dangerous it is, for both people and dogs?

  • Have you been to a remote part of the world like Santa Ysabel Island? How did you like it?

  • If you found yourself away from home, stranded in the wilderness, what would you do?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love adventure

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