Swashbuckling tales of the sky in Airborn

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel; published by Eos, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York, 2004; 501 pages.

Matt Cruse was born in the air, lost his father in the air, and is most at home in the air.  As cabin boy, this fifteen year old has responsibilities that take him from the crow’s nest to the dining room; but he couldn’t be happier.  Life on the airship (or blimp, as those of us in the shadow of Goodyear call them) is the only life for Matt.  A chance discovery of a foundering hot air balloon launches him and his shipmates on quite an adventure.  The journal of the hot air balloon pilot intrigues his granddaughter, Kate de Vries.  She emplores her parents to send her on Cruse’s airship on a two-week trip that will take her near the mystical island of mystical creatures her grandfather logged in his journal.  With a few air pirates thrown in, Kate and Matt have found so much more than they expected, including danger, discovery and friendship.  As the story closes, the hero and heroine, who single-handedly saved the airship Aurora from certain death at the hands of the pirates, discover lifelong friendship and a taste for adventure beyond what a rich girl and poor boy could ever hope for.

I imagine this story taking place in an alternate history, around the turn of the 20th century.  The language and clothing are clues to the timeframe, but some of the machines and technology are purely fantasty.  This tale of a poor cabin boy who saves the day and finds a better life is trite but works quite well in the hands of Oppel.  The twist to his storytelling is that the rich girl, who is expected to be no more than a socialite, has aspirations of scientific discovery and makes good on her dream to be a scientist.  Adding swashbuckling pirates, a shipwreck, and discovery of a rich treasure (in the form of cloud cats) in a tale of sky travel was also ingenious.

I admit that the 500 or so pages almost kept me from reading the book.  However, when Oppel “friended” me in Facebook, I figured I probably ought to read one of his books.  Having only recently rediscovered the pleasure of reading young adult literature, I was unaware of Kenneth Oppel.  I now find I can’t wait to finish the series about Kate and Matt and then embark on the Silverwing Trilogy.  Will teens want to read it?  I really think it speaks to an audience of adventure-lovers who aren’t interested in fantasy or vampires, but rather love the tales that could almost be true.  No wonder this book was a Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book in 2005.

As a librarian, I am very interested in information literacy.  That being said, I was impressed by all of the extras included at the end of the storytelling.  First, an interview with the author gives us background about him, how he writes, and about the subject matter.  That is followed by a list of web resources “for more exploration.”  Of course, an excerpt from the sequel is included to whet the appetite for the next book.  I really am glad the publisher included the web resources, in particular, but all of the extras add more teachable moments.

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 6-9

airbornCover Art:  The silhouette of a blimp with lights aglow in the gondola is not very interesting.  Even the red lettering of the title does nothing to indicate the adventure that lies between the pages.  I don’t think the cover will be the reason teens pick up this book.  The bright read text on the dark blue background on the inch-thick spine is easily found on the shelves.

Suggested Reading List: Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book, 2005

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