Kenneth Oppel (1967-)
Kenneth Oppel has written several books for young people, ranging from picture books and first readers to young-adult fiction, as well as authoring several screenplays. What is most impressive about Oppel's body of work is the amount he published before age twenty-nine. In recognition of this accomplishment, the Canadian Authors Association awarded him the 1995 Air Canada Award for promise demonstrated by a young Canadian writer.
Born in the small mill town of Port Alberni, British Columbia, in 1967, Oppel grew up mostly in Victoria, British Columbia, and on the opposite coast of Canada, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Oppel's father, who worked in a furniture factory when his second son was born, decided to go back to college, which necessitated the move to Victoria. Then, graduating from the University of Victoria, he decided to go to law school, which took the family to Nova Scotia. "As kids, we hated being moved and went kicking and screaming, but subsequently we loved Halifax," Oppel told Dave Jenkinson in a Canadian Review of Materials profile. Once his father finished law school, Oppel and his family then returned to Victoria, where he completed junior high school and went to high school.
One constant in these years was books. "As kids," Oppel explained to Jenkinson, "we were surrounded by books and, when you grow up in an environment like that, you just are automatically more interested in words and in telling stories." Studying at private schools, Oppel found that he most enjoyed creative writing assignments, but as actual creative writing—creating short stories and novels—was not emphasized in schools the young Oppel began working on these in his own time at home. By the sixth grade he was already writing lengthy manuscripts with a distinct Star Wars influence. "These big science fiction epics rarely got finished because I'd get five chapters in and then have no idea of what happened next," he told Jenkinson. Fantasy tales came next, inspired by the role-playing game "Dungeons and Dragons." As a young reader, Oppel, like such distinguished Canadian authors as Alice Munro and children's novelist Kit Pearson, was inspired by L. M. Montgomery's "Emily of New Moon" series. He related strongly to Emily's dream of becoming a published writer and by grade seven determined that he, too, would write. He commented in the Canadian Children's Book Centre anthology Writing Stories, Making Pictures: "I remember making a vow to my father when I was thirteen, that I wanted to have something published before I'd turned fourteen." Although that may not have been an uncommon goal for ambitious young teens with a flair for writing, it was definitely uncommon that Oppel published a novel before he was out of high school. The story behind that accomplishment is almost too good to be true.
Oppel's first work, Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, wasn't published until he was seventeen years old, though he did write the first draft at age fourteen. Oppel earned his lucky break when a family friend who knew British children's author Roald Dahl agreed to show him the young boy's story. Dahl was impressed enough to pass it on to his own literary agent. The agent agreed to represent the book and promptly sold it to publishers in London and New York.
Oppel's inspiration for Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure resulted from another of his passions—playing video games. In the story, eleven-year-old Colin wins video game contests with the help of two spacemen who escaped from the boy's favorite video game "Meteoroids." Colin eventually realizes that cheating isn't fair and goes on to play a third contest by himself. "Writing it was good therapy," Oppel told the Canadian Children's Book Centre of his work on the book, "a withdrawal technique if you will, enabling me to experience video games vicariously without spending huge amounts of money." As Susan Roman noted in Booklist, "the theme is very trendy and has appeal—especially to reluctant readers."
After his first book, Oppel had trouble getting a second one published. So he stopped writing and focused on his studies. While at the University of Toronto, he majored in English literature and cinema. Fascinated by his cinema studies, Oppel began making student films. When he returned to writing children's books in his final year of undergraduate study, The Live-forever Machine, written for an independent studies course in creative writing, demonstrated the new cinematic influence. The story of fourteen-year-old Eric, who stumbles upon two men who discovered the secret of immortality in 391 A.D. and have been chasing each other through history ever since, reads as though a camera is mounted on Eric's shoulders. The reader sees a dank underworld where the Live-Forever machine is jealously guarded, a deceptively bland urban upper world melting under a ferocious sun, and a cool museum that offers refuge from the heat and a passageway into the past. The cinematic technique and themes introduced in this novel became a trademark of Oppel's later efforts.
Dead Water Zone, Oppel's next YA novel, details the relationship between two brothers possessing opposite characteristics. Paul, who is strong physically, travels to Watertown, in search of his missing brother Sam, who is the brainier half of the two. When he gets there, Paul suspects that his brother has discovered a secret hidden in the waters surrounding the eerie town. Horn Book contributor Elizabeth S. Watson, Lucinda Lockwood of School Library Journal, and Elizabeth MacCallum of the Toronto Globe & Mail all described Dead Water Zone as "Dickensian" in scope and flavor. Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Deborah Dubois wrote that "Teens who like science fiction will find this a gripping novel that will leave them with much food for thought."
Geared for a younger audience, Oppel's "Barnes and the Brains" chapter books provide plenty of action and dialogue for newly independent readers, typically between the ages of six and nine. In A Bad Case of Ghosts, Giles Barnes discovers ghosts in an old house newly occupied by Giles and his family. With the help of two young ghost-hunters, Kevin and Tina, the harmless ghosts eventually leave the family alone. According to School Librarian contributor Cathy Sutton, "This is a well-written story with good character development." The trio's mystery-solving services are needed once again in A Bad Case of Magic, when books mysteriously float off the local library's shelves and right out the door. "The stories move along smartly, and they are full of fun, action, and the occasional deliciously scary bit," noted Fred Boer in Quill & Quire. Other titles within the series, including A Bad Case of Robots, and An Incredible Case of Dinosaurs, were also received favorably.
Oppel is best known for his "Silverwing" series, in which he introduces his readers to yet another world, one of bats. "I said I'd never write a talking animal story," Oppel told Dave Jenkinson in Canadian Review of Materials online. "I've always had a slightly condescending attitude toward them and thought they were somehow cutesy." But he was drawn to the idea of basing a novel—or trilogy, as it turned out—around such an unlikable animal. For Oppel, part of the fun of the story was the challenge of making this creature so often associated with horror and scary novels into an endearing and appealing protagonist. Another challenge was the fact that a bat's world is largely auditory, rather than visual. Oppel's writing then, needed to rely heavily on auditory images.
The first novel in the series, Silverwing, tells the story of the bat Shade, the smallest of the Silverwing community of bats. Loved and protected by his mother, Shade is often taunted by other bats his age because of his physical weakness. But Shade compensates for this in his acute intelligence as well as with a stubborn, self-willed streak. His intellectual curiosity, however, gets him into trouble, as when he tries to see the sun—something forbidden to bats from the time when they refused to take a stand in the battle between birds and beasts—and brings down the punishment of the night owls on his fellow bats. As the colony migrates to its winter home, Shade again gets into trouble, losing track of the flight-path during a storm. He then must search for his colony, and is helped by another bat, Marina Brightwing, who has been ostracized by her own colony because of the silver band on her leg. These two set about upon a voyage of discovery, searching not only for Shade's colony, but also for the secret of the silver band, and for the whereabouts of Shade's father. Silverwing won critical praise and honors from many quarters. A critic for Publishers Weekly found that this "epic journey is gripping, and details of bat life are inventively and convincingly imagined." Writing in Horn Book, Lauren Adams also commended Oppel for creating an "intriguing microcosm of rival species, factions, and religions," and further noted that the author "has left enough unsolved mystery to entice readers into the apparently planned sequel." Quill & Quire reviewer John Wilson commented that "Silverwing creates a complete culture with its own mythology, lore, and rationale. Like all books in this genre, its success depends upon the convincing portrayal of a plausible world. This Kenneth Oppel has achieved."
Silverwing was a publishing success, and its sequel came with the publication of Sunwing in 2000. Oppel continues the saga of Shade and the Silverwings in this novel, with Shade and Marina continuing the search for Cassiel, Shade's father. Accompanied by a small group of bats, Shade finds a huge indoor forest filled with bats. Once inside, however, he and the others cannot escape. While many of the bats take this new home as a fulfillment of legend—that they will be able to fly in daylight without any fear of owls—Shade is suspicious. Captured and tagged, and loaded onto crates, Shade and the other bats are dropped as living bombs over a distant jungle. Shade and a few others survive this, only to do battle with Goth, an enemy bat. Again, the critical response was favorable for Oppel's bat book. Anne St. John, writing in Horn Book, declared that Shade's "dangerous adventures make a memorable impact," and Booklist's Carolyn Phelan lauded the book as "action packed and suspenseful." Sarah Ellis, writing in Quill & Quire, noted that with Sunwing "Oppel admirably fulfills his promise of a sequel." Ellis went on to conclude that the second novel in the series "is a book of big effects."
Firewing, the third novel in the series, focuses on Griffin, son of Shade and Marina. This young bat is as self-willed as his father, and when he tries to steal fire from humans he burns his friend and then is sent on a frightening journey into the Underworld. Shade, meanwhile, attempts to save his son, but soon he discovers that his old nemesis, Goth, is also on hand to complicate matters. A critic for Kirkus Reviews thought this third installment a "fine tale" despite some "inelegant writing." Horn Book contributor Anita L. Burkam had greater praise for the novel, commenting that "this new adventure, with its compelling geography and cosmology of the underworld, takes [readers] places Silverwing and Sunwing never dreamed of." And Susan Perren, reviewing the title in the Globe & Mail, wrote that Oppel "constructs a wonderfully florid and richly imagined world, a bat world in which life and death, goodness and evil, heaven and hell, and the notion of giving up one's own life so that another might live, are there for the reading—and the feeling. Hats off to Oppel for a hat trick!" So popular did the "Silverwing" books become that they spawned an animated television series.
Speaking with a contributor for Achuka, Oppel posited the possibility of continuing with the series. "I never set out to write a series. I wrote very much one book at a time. I always tell myself I won't proceed unless I've got a really good idea I'm really excited about. And I really felt that with each book. Silverwing ended and I kind of liked the way it ended. It had quite an open ending. A lot of the kids who wrote to me didn't agree. They wanted to know if Shade found his father. And luckily I had an idea for the second book, as I was revising Silverwing. So Sunwing was easy to write. Firewing was harder really, because everything was pretty well wrapped up at the end of Sunwing. But then I had the idea of a child in the underworld—a sort of Orpheus descent. I'm open to a fourth book. I don't think I'm quite done with Shade. But I don't have that big idea yet."
Oppel's fantasy novel Airborn, set in an imaginary world where giant airships rule the skies, has been compared to the works of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson. Airborn follows the adventures of fifteen-year-old Matt Cruse, a cabin boy aboard the luxury ship Aurora. As the Aurora crosses the Pacificus on its way to Lionsgate City, Matt spies a tattered balloon and rescues its sole passenger, an elderly man whose tales of majestic, catlike winged creatures are quickly dismissed. When Matt later meets Kate de Vries, the man's granddaughter, he becomes convinced of the existence of the cloud cats.
In addition to his novels and short chapter books, Oppel has written a couple of picture books as well as a number of screenplays. The author's 1990 picture book Cosimo Cat, described as a "charming and magical" story by Terri L. Lyons in Canadian Children's Literature, features a young boy in search of an intriguing cat. Oppel has also written the award-winning picture book Peg and the Whale as well as the chapter book Emma's Emu. In spite of his success in the field of juvenile literature, he hasn't confined his writing exclusively to children's books either. He has also published an adult medical thriller, The Devil's Cure, dealing with a possible cure for cancer found in the white cells of a death-row inmate who will stop at nothing to keep the world from profiting from his blood. Reviewing the novel in Library Journal, Linda M. G. Katz found The Devil's Cure, "engaging and nicely paced."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Egoff, Sheila, and Judith Saltman, The New Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1990, p. 270.
"Meet Kenneth Oppel" (booklet), Kids Can Press, 1994 (unpaged).
Writing Stories, Making Pictures: Biographies of 150 Canadian Children's Authors and Illustrators, Canadian Children's Book Centre, 1995, pp. 245-247.
Booklist, July, 1985; January 1, 2000, Carolyn Phelan, review of Sunwing, 927; November 15, 2000, Connie Fletcher, review of Peg and the Whale, p. 639; May 15, 2001, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Devil's Cure, p. 1737; Colin's Fantastic Video, pp. 1558-1559.
Book Report, November-December, 1993, pp. 47-48.
Books for Keeps, January, 1996, p. 13.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1985, p. 34; January, 1998, p. 170.
Canadian Book Review Annual, 1993, pp. 6174-6175.
Canadian Children's Literature, number 65, 1992, pp. 106-107; number 71, 1993, Terri L. Lyons, review of Cosimo Cat, pp. 87-88; number 86, 1997, pp. 52-54; spring, 2001, review of Sunwing, p. 182.
Canadian Review of Materials, January, 1991, p. 35; May, 1991, p. 174; November, 1992, p. 312.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 19, 1992, Elizabeth MacCallum, "Journey through the Underworld Kindles a Glowing Novel," p. C19; May 11, 2002, Susan Perren, review of Firewing.
Horn Book, November-December, 1993, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Dead Water Zone, p. 747; November-December, 1997, Lauren Adams, review of Silverwing, p. 684; March-April, 2000, Anne St. John, review of Sunwing, p. 199; July-August, 2000, review of Peg and the Whale, p. 442; March-April, 2003, Anita L. Burkam, review of Firewing, pp. 215-217.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, May, 1997, Ronald Jobe, review of Silverwing, p. 137; December, 2003, Michael Jung, review of Firewing, p. 349.
Junior Bookshelf, August, 1994, p. 138.
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1997, review of Silverwing, p. 1394; December 1, 2002, review of Firewing, p. 1772.
Library Journal, May 1, 2001, Linda M. G. Katz, review of The Devil's Cure, p. 128.
Maclean's, July 17, 2000, review of The Devil's Cure, p. 129.
Presbyterian Record, December, 1995, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, May 24, 1993, review of Dead Water Zone, p. 89; October 20, 1997, review of Silverwing, p. 76; January 17, 2000, "Fiction Sequels," p. 58; June 4, 2001, review of The Devil's Cure, p. 57; December 16, 2002, "The Story Goes On," p. 70.
Quill & Quire, November, 1990, p. 14; March, 1991, pp. 20-21; July, 1992, p. 48; August, 1994, p. 33; April, 1995, Fred Boer, review of A Bad Case of Ghosts and A Bad Case of Magic, p. 41; May, 1995, p. 48; April, 1997, p. 37; October, 1998, Andrew Pyper, "Taking Flight: Kenneth Oppel Talks about Life after Silverwing," pp. 41-42; April, 1999, review of The Devil's Cure, pp. 38-39; August, 1999, Sarah Ellis, review of Sunwing, p. 38; April, 2000, review of The Devil's Cure, pp. 38-39; December, 2000, review of Peg and the Whale, pp. 30-31.
Resource Links, December, 1999, review of Emma's Emu, pp. 8-9, and review of Sunwing, p. 29; April, 2000, Gail Lennon, review of The Live-forever Machine, p. 50; December, 2000, review of Peg and the Whale, pp. 7-8; February, 2001, review of A Bad Case of Ghosts and A Strange Case of Magic, pp. 17-18; April, 2001, Krista Johansen, review of Dead Water Zone, p. 25, and Gail Lennon, review of The Live-forever Machine, p. 50; June, 2001, Judy Cottrell, review of A Crazy Case of Robots, p. 39; December, 2001, Johal Jinder, review of An Incredible Case of Dinosaurs, pp. 19-20; April, 2002, Evette Signarowski, review of A Weird Case of Super Goo, pp. 24-25, and Odile Rollin, review of Silverwing, pp. 54-55; February, 2003, Judy Cottrell, review of A Creepy Case of Vampires, pp. 13-15; June, 2003, Odile Rollin, review of Sunwing, pp. 45-47.
School Librarian, August, 1993, Cathy Sutton, review of A Bad Case of Ghosts, p. 109.
School Library Journal, October, 1985, Li Stark, review of Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, p. 175; May, 1993, Lucinda Lockwood, review of Dead Water Zone, p. 127; October, 1997, Beth Wright, review of Silverwing, p. 137; February, 2000, Susan L. Rogers, review of Sunwing, p. 124; November, 2000, Kathleen Kelly, review of Peg and the Whale, p. 129; February, 2002, Louise L. Sherman, review of Silverwing (audiobook).
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1993, Deborah Dubois, review of Dead Water Zone, p. 104; April, 1998, Nancy Eaton, review of Silverwing, p. 58.
Achuka, http://www.achuka.co.uk/ (April 16, 2003), "Kenneth Oppel."
Airborn Web site, http://www.airborn.ca/ (March 15, 2004).
Canadian Review of Materials Online, http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/cm/ (March 15, 2004), Dave Jenkinson, "Kenneth Oppel."
Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators, and Performers Web site, http://www.canscaip.org/ (March 15, 2004), "Kenneth Oppel."
CBC4Kids, http://www.cbc4kids.ca/ (April 16, 2003), "Author Profile: Kenneth Oppel."
HarperEos Web site, http://www.harpercollins.com/hc/eos/ (March 15, 2004), "Kenneth Oppel."
Kenneth Oppel Homepage, http://www.kennethoppel.ca/ (March 15, 2004).
Mystery Ink Online, http://www.mysteryinkonline.com/ (March 15, 2004), interview with Oppel.
Red Cedar Book Awards Web site, http://redcedar.swifty.com/ (March 15, 2004), "Kenneth Oppel."
Scholastic Canada Web site, http://www.scholastic.ca/ (March 15, 2004), "Kenneth Oppel."
Silverwing Web site, http://www.silverwing.tv/index2.php/ (March 15, 2004).
Trades, http://www.the-trades.com/ (January 16, 2003), Howard Price, review of Firewing.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - CareerKenneth Oppel (1967-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress