Half Brother is all good

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel; published by Scholastic Press, New York, 2010; 375 pages.

Ben’s dad is a behavioral psychologist.  When Ben isn’t doing what dad expects of him, all of his psychological training is used full force to get Ben to change his own behavior.  For instance, Ben convinced himself that moving across Canada, from Toronto to Victoria, would be a great trip and excellent opportunity.  Turns out, the new house isn’t in the city and it isn’t close to more than a couple of kids his own age.  Another example is Ben’s reaction when his mom comes home from a trip with an eight day old chimpanzee.  When Ben doesn’t accept the chimpanzee or take an interest in the experiment that his father and mother have planned, his father works on Ben to convince himself that it’s a good idea to have a chimpanzee for a baby brother (or half brother).  It turns out that Ben’s parents have moved to Victoria to conduct experiments on whether or not chimpanzees can learn human language by signing.  Unfortunately, Ben’s father’s psychology works all too well and Ben embraces Zan as his new brother.  Further misfortunes plague the family and the experiment.  In the end, definitions of language, family and love are all tested.

Kenneth Oppel is a masterful story teller.  I read through Airborn in record time as his words flew into my imagination.  But I honestly had reservations about this book.  How on earth do you take philosophical, moral and ethical dilemmas and make them interesting–no, entertaining–for middle schoolers and even young adults?  Well, I should never have doubted his skills.  Half Brother took me out of the 21st century back to the early 1970s.  How did I know it was the seventies?  Oppel’s skill in setting the story is wonderful–his descriptions of shag carpet, music favorites, and so much more led me by the hand back to the early 1970s.  He takes a moment to make sure all readers are back in time by mentioning the year about a third of the way through the book.

I was also transported into a family with dysfunctions most people can relate to.  I even found myself madly in love with Zan and Ben’s relationship.  While it reads well, it also poses questions about what makes a family and what responsibilities we have to each other and our animal friends.

For those last reasons, I would recommend this book to any teachers working with philosophy and ethics.  I would put it on pathfinders about the same subjects.  As a librarian, I would use it in displays about activism or just recommend it because it is such a complex book.  After I finished reading it, I was saddened by the fact that I was the first to check it out from my local library’s young adult section.  It had been on the shelf for nearly two months without being touched.  That is so sad for the young adults I know in my community that would devour this book.  Let’s get it into teen’s hands!

By the way, Oppel’s website includes a matching game–try to match the hand signals Zan uses: http://www.kennethoppel.ca/pages/game.shtml.  The splash page (http://www.kennethoppel.ca/index.shtml) includes links to the book trailer and a chat forum.  All are worth a look.

3P     5Q     Grade Level: 7-11

Cover Art:  The burnt orange dust cover features icons of man, woman, child…and chimp (picture the generic images on bathroom doors).  The yellow font for the title isn’t remarkable, but the yellow is repeated on the spine, along with the chimp image; that’s how I found the book on the shelf.  Teens won’t pick this up based on the cover; word of mouth and a good librarian or library display will have to communicate its value.

From Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction)


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