of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Kenneth Oppel's writing career is taking flight. The Toronto-based author has written a considerable number of books for young readers (around twenty, at last count), but it is his recent books that have won him international recognition for factually accurate, creatively distinctive, and thematically ambitious fiction.
His most widely acclaimed books so far have been his Silverwing trilogy (Silverwing, BCCB 1/98; Sunwing, BCCB 5/00; and Firewing, BCCB 4/03). Shade, the protagonist in two of the Silverwing books (and father of the protagonist in the third) provides a complex lens through which readers experience not only the physical life of a young silverwing bat, but also a multilayered series of quest stories rife with demanding choices regarding good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, courage and fear, and even the nature of reality itself. The details of bat biology and social networks enrich the stories so that readers are immersed in a cosmos both fantastical and familiar. This imaginative experience offers a mirror of human life and an opportunity to re-view common assumptions about the natural world that surrounds us. All these strengths, combined with mile-a-minute pacing that keeps readers on the edges of their seats, lift the Silverwing books far above the usual animal fiction lineup.
In keeping with the excellence of that trilogy, Airborn (BCCB 7/04), Oppelís recent young adult novel, is an exhilarating ride through an alternative history. Fifteen-year-old Matt Cruse serves as cabin boy aboard the luxury zeppelin Aurora in the equivalent of the Victorian era, a time when massive airships cruise the heavens, sky pirates stalk weary or naÔve balloonists, and intrepid explorers are just beginning to discover the secret wonders of the globe. Here, the particulars of zeppelin sailing, shipwreck, and reconstruction on an uncharted island lend new twists to a time-tested story structure. At the same time, perilous interaction with a spectacular species of flying cat illustrates the unparalleled joys and dangers of flight, adding drama and dimension. A remarkable work of tribute fiction (referencing Treasure Island and the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, among others), Airborn soars to new heights on its own narrative and thematic power.
Oppel's fascination with aerial adventures hasn't prevented him from producing
lively books on other themes. In his picture book Peg and the Whale (BCCB
7/00), seven-year-old Peg, master angler, will do whatever it takes to catch
the only fish--or fishy-looking animal--she has not yet hooked: a whale. Here,
the apparent honesty of straight-faced statements battles the sheer preposterousness
of the story (ending with a triumphant whale ride home), producing a rollicking
tale worthy of a sea shanty all its own. In the just-released Peg and the Yeti,
Peg's further adventures on snowy alpine slopes prove that Oppel's interests
continue to range far and wide. With accomplishments such as the Silverwing
trilogy and Airborn to his credit, that variety of interest bodes well
for Oppel's future offerings--expect some extraordinary flights of fancy from
this storyspinner whose unique vision has vaulted his work to the top of its
--Timnah Card, Reviewer
Airborn. Eos/HarperCollins, 2004. (BCCB 7/04)
Firewing. Simon, 2003. (BCCB 4/03)
Peg and the Whale; illus. by Terry Widener. Simon, 2000. (BCCB 7/00)
Silverwing. Simon, 1997. (BCCB 1/98)
Sunwing. Simon, 2000. (BCCB 5/00)