Sunday, November 07, 2010

HALF BROTHER by Kenneth Oppel (2010) HarperCollins Canada

Thirteen-year-old Ben Tomlin is less than thrilled when his mother brings home an 8-day-old chimpanzee they name Zan. Ben is accustomed to being the only child of two curious behavioural scientist parents, but now thanks to one of his father's high-profile experiments, Ben has been uprooted to the west coast where a university has agreed to support the project that hopes to determine if a chimpanzee can learn human sign language. And, Ben finds himself in the sometimes uncomfortable position of explaining that he now has a little brother who is a chimp.

To begin with Zan is treated like a human baby, swaddled in blankets and diapered. He adjusts relatively well to his new life with the Tomlins and a caring group of graduate students that help to support him. It only takes a few months for Zan to learn his first few signs and he becomes a media sensation with reporters from TIME magazine showing up as well as a 60 MINUTES crew. It's the 70s and there are nascent groups of Animal Rights Activists who are becoming vocal. Could they threaten the fascinating project that Dr. Tomlin has created?

Being a teenager, Ben is also struggling to fit in to a new community of schoolmates and coming to terms with what he refers to as the "Project Jennifer"-his intention to properly woo one of his classmates whose father is his own father's boss at the university.

HALF BROTHER raises ethical questions about animal experimentation and there were several moments where I found myself weeping for Zan as he struggles with his own identity: animal or human?

Oppel clearly remembers what it is like to navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence and writes convincingly from Ben's perspective as a result. This is a novel that would appeal tremendously to Grades 6-8, especially as students are developing moral courage and figuring out what is fair.

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