I loved Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel, a fascinating and well-written novel. Oppel is the author of many other novels for kids and teens, including Airborn, winner of the Printz Honor, and Silverwing, the beginning of one of my son’s favorite middle-grade animal series. I was intrigued as soon as I read the summary of Half Brother.
On his thirteenth birthday, Ben gets a new baby brother unlike any other. Zan is a newborn baby chimpanzee who Ben’s scientist parents want to raise as a human so they can teach him sign language for their university research projects. Here, they celebrate Ben’s birthday, hours after his mother brought Zan home:
She went to the kitchen and when she came back she was holding a birthday cake, thirteen candles lit up. She and Dad launched into “Happy Birthday to You.” Normally it made me kind of embarrassed when they sang, but this time I couldn’t help smiling, because I honestly hadn’t thought there’d be cake. Mom must have made a special trip earlier to get one.
I blew out the candles and made a wish. I wish’d that we’d be happy in our new home.
Then I looked over at baby Zan, all swaddled in his basinet, and thought:
We are the weirdest family in the world.
Before long, Zan is an integral part of their family life, and he and Ben become as close as, well, brothers. Some serious problems crop up as Zan grows bigger, but this book is not just about the relationship between a boy and a chimp. It’s about family and fitting in at a new school and growing up.
This plot could easily become silly in the hands of a lesser author, but it's not. The novel is very well-written, with both warmth and humor. And, of course, the story about teaching Zan sign language is absolutely fascinating. It reminded me a bit of my favorite Michael Crichton book, Congo, about a gorilla named Amy who knows sign language. The novel also touches on some serious issues such as animal rights and bullying. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish.
375 pages, Scholastic