• Happy birthday Harriet Ziefert (Sleepy Dog).
  • It’s the birth date of Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007), Amahl and the Night Visitors.
  • Baseball player Satchel Paige (1906-1982) was also born on this day. Read Satchel Paige by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransom, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm, illustrated by Rich Tommaso, and Satchel Paige; Don’t Look Back by David Adler, illustrated by Terry Widner.
  • Best birthday wishes to Dr. John H. Watson (1852), fictional sidekick of Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Read Mercy Watson Goes For a Ride by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen.
  • In 1456, 25 years after she was executed, heresy charges against Joan of Arc were annulled by Pope Calixtus III. Read Joan of Arc by Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett, and Joan of Arc: Heroine of France by Ann Tompert, illustrated by Michael Garland.
  • It’s Tell the Truth Day. Read Nothing But the Truth by Avi.

July 1 was Canada Day and in its honor I’m celebrating two Canadian authors and events this month. On July 5 the Almanac featured Tim Wynne-Jones. Today we’ll look at another Canadian writer, Kenneth Oppel.

I first encountered his work in the Airborn series and loved his voice, imagination, and ability to write page-turning science fiction. Last year a new book, Half Brother, appeared for ten- to fourteen-year-olds and extended the range of what Oppel has attempted. In it, he demonstrates that he can also create realistic fiction that delves into important issues yet still keep his story character- and plot-driven.

In Half Brother, when Ben turns thirteen his parents bring home a new baby. This scenario, of course, is often fraught with problems. In Ben’s case, however, the problems are magnified tenfold; his new brother is a hairy chimp, an experiment for his behavioral scientist father. Mr. Tomlin wants to discover how fast an animal raised in a normal family situation can learn communication and sign language. At first like any normal thirteen-year-old, Ben resents this intrusion into the family. But as he begins working in sign language with Zan, he grows to love the chimp. In doing so, he realizes that although he cares for this being, his father views the chimp as only an experiment. When Ben’s father loses funding for his project, Ben tries to find a happy ending for the creature he has grown to love.

Set in Victoria, British Columbia in the seventies, this story examines the inexplicable and often unexplainable bond between humans and animals. Although Oppel raises questions about animal rights and scientific experimentation, he presents no easy answers. As it deals with important issues, Half Brother presents a very real young boy—trying to fit into a new school, developing his first crush, and dealing with tensions in his family.

Animal nut that I am, I fell in love with Zan! I kept thinking how much fun it would be to have a chimp around the house. Fortunately, the ending convinced me of the waywardness of this idea. But what I do know is that anyone hunting for well-written, well-crafted, thought-provoking books will be delighted with the work of Kenneth Oppel. I myself am eager to see what he accomplishes next.

Here’s a passage from Half Brother:

Mom pulled back the blankets and there in her arms was a sleeping baby chimpanzee.

He was ugly. His tiny body fit in the crook of Mom’s arm, his head resting on three of her fingers. His skin was all wrinkly. His nose was squashed flat and his jaw stuck way out. Frizzy black hair covered his whole body, except for his face and fingers, chest and toes. He had long, skinny arms. His short legs were pulled up, and his toes were so long they looked more like fingers. He wore a little white T-shirt and a diaper and smelled like shampoo and Mom’s perfume. As we watched, he stirred and opened his eyes. They were brown and seemed huge in his small face. He stared at me and Dad, and then up at Mom, as if for reassurance. Mom held him close.


Originally posted July 7, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Family, Science, Social Conscience


  1. Mindi says:

    Half Brother was the first Oppel book I read. I had the opportunity to see him talk about his research for the book last fall at an event sponsored by Anderson’s Books in Naperville. After hearing his experiences visiting the chimpanzee refuge, I knew I had to read this book. I loved it. I laughed and cried in equal measure, and when I was finished I was sad for the book to end. Ben and the troubles he faced felt so real, and my booktalks on this one were so enthusiastic that it didn’t remain on my classroom shelves for very long.

  2. Tahleen says:

    I enjoyed this book as well. I thought Oppel did a masterful job at working in the ethics issues, and his setting it in the ’70s allowed him to give a bit of history in animal rights. I listened to this on CD, and though the narrator was lacking, the book was not.

  3. Anita says:

    Mindi and Tahleen: Thanks for you enthusiastic comments on this book. I have felt that it has not gotten enough attention, and I am happy to hear about your experiences with it.

  4. Jory Hearst says:

    I also love Oppel’s previous work with the Airborn series (and they are fantastic on audio!), and Half Brother has been next to my bed since before it came out last October — thanks for the nudge, Anita! I didn’t realize Oppel was Canadian either, so much to celebrate about our northern neighbors.

  5. Erica S. says:

    Jory actually gave me a copy of this book a few months ago and I’ve been a little reluctant to read it, but I guess this is the nudge I need! I’ll also have to check out the Airborn series, a few copies of which were donated to my library recently.

  6. Karin Z says:

    Kenneth Oppel is my favourite children’s author, and I own all of his books, including the first one he published but is not mentioned on his website, Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure (he wrote it when he was in Grade 7!). I read Silverwing to my class every year and love how much the kids learn about bats and how they clamour for me to read. And, yes, I am a proud Canadian. His Airborn series is what I would term a steampunk adventure…science fiction with a Victorian bent. We are never quite sure what the time period is. I quite enjoyed Half Brother, but do not think my class is old enough to appreciate it (I teach Grade 4/5). Thank you for this amazing website!

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