High-flying tales for tweens

Canadian novels for youth are winning success wherever they land

Brian Bethune November 22 1999

High-flying tales for tweens

Canadian novels for youth are winning success wherever they land

Brian Bethune November 22 1999

High-flying tales for tweens

Canadian novels for youth are winning success wherever they land

Brian Bethune

Kenneth Oppel was a precocious 15-year-old living in Victoria when he sent his first novel to the famed British children's author Roald Dahl. Dahl recommended the book to his agent, and Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure was published shortly after. Through his first 13 books, Oppel thought of himself as a realistic writer, someone who kept his stories grounded in the actual lives of his young readers. So why is the 32-year-old now the critically acclaimed, best-selling creator of two volumes of fantasy about—of all creatures—bats? “Yeah, I always promised myself I’d never write a talking-animal book,” Oppel laughs. But then an animal-loving friend introduced him to the world of bats and, by 1993, what Oppel calls “the challenge” began to grow on him. “All the adorable animals had been done ad nauseum. But such unlikely heroes? There was a healthy dose of perversity to the idea—could I get people to identify with bats?”

The answer turned out to be an emphatic yes for the author, now living in Toronto with his graduate student wife, Philippa Sheppard, and their oneand four-yearolds. Oppel, who will tour southern British Columbia as part of Canadian Childrens Book Week, Nov. 13 to 20, is one of his genres stars among middle readers, the eight-to-12-year-olds. Across the English-speaking world,

those kids—and many of their elders— are wild about Harry Potter (page 105). But Canadian authors have recently managed to grab their share of acclaim at home and abroad. Christopher Paul Curtis of Windsor, Ont., won the Newbery Honor—one of the top prizes in the world of children’s literature—for

his superb 1995 book The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963. And Prince Rupert, B.C., writer Iain Lawrence’s thrilling nautical adventure The Wreckers was an American Library Association Best Book winner in 1998. Both have strong new tides out this year.

But the greatest success has come to

Oppel. His first bat adventure, Silverwing, has sold more than 200,000 copies since 1997 in North America alone—more than all his earlier works combined. In August, the novel was published in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and it will soon appear in Germany. Silverwing has also taken a host of honours to match its sales, the prestigious Mr. Christies and Canadian Library Association awards among them, and Silverwing’s recendy released sequel, Sunwing (HarperCollins, $14.95), still available only in Canada, is already in its fifth printing.

The two books focus on Shade, a fatherless young silverwing bat, the runt of his colony. Shade is a troublemaker—the equivalent, his creator says, of “an 11-year-old boy with a Napoleonic complex.” Unlike his fellow newborns, Shade wont just shut up and blindly follow orders. Oppel may have yielded to the animal story temptation, but he still rejects many of its conventions. “I think fantasies about the chosen one are corny,” he says.

“Shade is the right one because he refuses to accept pat answers.” As Silverwing opens, Shade—infuriated that no one can explain to him why bats are forbidden to see the sun—inadvertendy shatters an ancient peace with the owls when he refuses to return to his roost before sunrise.

The owls retaliate by destroying the hollow tree that has been the bat colony’s summer home for hundreds of years. That sets in motion the suspense-filled narrative that has made Silverwing— and now Sunwing—so popular among book-resistant preteen boys. As the bats retreat to their winter roost, Shade is separated from the others during a storm. Carrying on alone, he dodges dangerous humans, meets unexpected friends and encounters one truly terri-

fying enemy. Goth is a carnivorous vampire bat—a “cannibal,” in Shades shocked judgment—from Amazonia who has escaped human captivity. The bloody swathe the gigantic Goth cuts through the local bird population escalates the dispute with the owls into allout war, and threatens doom for the entire silverwing colony.

But there are elements in Shades saga that elevate it beyond gripping adventure. First, is Oppel’s deep immersion in the life of bats. Since they see only in black and white, he mentions not a sin-

gle colour in the novel. Journeys are measured in wing-beats and navigated by sound, while days are reckoned from sunset to sunrise. (Oppel does cheat a little, though: bat guano is nowhere mentioned.) And the author depicts owls as bats think of them—“flying slaughterhouses”—a fresh portrayal of birds that are as highly regarded in folklore as bats are despised.

Humans, too, are viewed through a bat’s eye. These all-powerful but remote figures move into the forefront of the story in Sunwing. The northern humans are at war with the southerners. To evade air defences, the northerners have begun attaching explosives to captured bats before dropping them from planes high above enemy cities. The devices go off when the exhausted, terrified

creatures land on the buildings below. Oppel here is merely expanding on secret U.S. military experiments during the Second World War. (The actual project was abrupdy abandoned after hundreds of bats escaped, incinerating several buildings before taking refuge under a large fuel tank.)

Humans thereby enter into the second extraordinary aspect of Oppel’s work—its theological dimensions. With the humans turning on them, and the bats’ own benign goddess, Nocturna, failing to help them, the silverwings feel lost. Goth, on the other hand, is actively aided by his own bloodthirsty god, Zotz, who frequently intervenes in mortal affairs. It is a far more bleak theology than most fantasies offer children, but one in accordance with Oppel’s perspective: “Evil is always more blatandy obvious—you have to look much harder to find acts of goodness. You can’t tell kids in the 20th century that if they follow the rules, everything will work out.” For Oppel that take on life is just another aspect of the realism he has brought to a “talking animal” story of a very different kind.

Christopher Paul Curtis’s first novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 was a marvellous evocation of a pivotal time in African-American history. His new book, Bud, Not Buddy (Random House, $24.95), a poignant and very funny Depression-era story of a lonely black child, is easily as good. Ten-yearold Bud—who won’t let anyone call him Buddy—has been in and out of a Flint, Mich., orphanage since his mother died four years earlier. Bud, disregarding hunger, fear and loneliness, runs away from a foster home to search for his father. His only clue is the posters his mother used to collect, advertising performances by Herman E. Calloway and his band, the wonderfully named Dusky Devastators of the Depression.

Curtis, who moved to Windsor from Flint in 1991, is an immensely skilled writer, capable of combining broad humour with subde social commentary. Bud’s many rules for “Having a Funner Life” are amusingly expressed—No. 8, for example, warns children that when adults tell them to listen carefully, “run as fast as you can because something real terrible is just around the corner.” In Curtis’s hands the maxims come across quite clearly not as adult cynicism, but the hard-won wisdom of a hard-luck child. And in a neat reversal of a common stereotype, everyone described simply as a man or a woman or a child is black. It is the white folks, rare presences in Bud’s world, who receive a colour identification in such phrases as “me, a litde white boy and a little girl.”

‘You can’t tell kids in the 20th century that if they follow the rules, everything will work out’

Bud’s rules come across not as adult cynicism but the hard-won wisdom of a hard-luck child

Bud himself is one of the most appealing heroes in recent kids’ books, a brave and resourceful child whose “eyes don’t cry no more.” Not, that is, until he realizes he has finally come among people who care for him.

Then he shocks himself by dissolving into wracking sobs. It is one of the finest scenes in one of the year’s best children’s novels.

W. D. Valgardson’s new collection of seven original short pieces, The Divorced Kids Club and Other Stories (Groundwood, $18.95), brought him his first Governor General’s nomination this fall. The locale varies from rural Manitoba—Valgardson was raised in Gimli, the centre of Icelandic immigration to the province—to Victoria, where he now teaches comparative literature. But the theme is identical in each piece: a young teen is acutely aware of being an outsider. The characters baffle their parents and even themselves with their inability to think or feel like everyone around them. They even express their disassociation in the same metaphor. Sam in “Cyberworld” muses that “everyone else was colourblind while he could see colour but couldn’t explain it.” Annie Lee in “Cabin Fever” says almost the exact same thing. And the characters’ responses jibe too. They all draw on their

inner resources to adapt and survive in Valgardson’s polished, low-key stories.

Veteran Winnipeg author Carol Matas, a two-time Governor General’s Award nominee, is best-known for her Second World War novels on Jewish themes. Her newest book, In My Enemy’s House (Scholastic, $18.99), examines the age-old problem of the intermingling of good and evil in the human heart from an intriguing angle.

Marisa is a blond, blue-eyed Polish Jew who, in 1941, assumes a Christian girl’s papers in an attempt to save her life by going to Germany as a Polish slave worker. She ends up working on the family farm of a high-ranking Nazi official. The Reymanns—husband, wife and three children—are quite the nicest people Marisa has met since she lost her own family. Cultured, kind and considerate even to Polish servants, every last Reymann also firmly believes that Jews are vermin, fit only for extermination.

The contrast drives Marisa to thoughts of suicide, as she struggles to keep her secret among people who, if

they learned it, would have demanded her death as insistently as they now sought her well-being. But Marisa survives the war, as do the Reymanns. She stays on the farm for a while, unable— for their sake—to reveal the truth. “How could I have become attached to them like this? And yet, how could I not?” she wonders. In My Enemy’s House has its flaws. Even those who can accept a kindly Nazi—as opposed to an ordinary German—may balk at Marisas postwar relationship with the family. But the novel is an ambitious attempt to bring a complex issue to young readers.

Iain Lawrence lives on an island off Prince Rupert, B.C. The author of two nonfiction books on sailing, and a man who spends several months a year on the water, he clearly knows his boats— and the classics of seagoing literature. His 1998 novel, The Wreckers, mixed history and mystery in a pageturning narrative reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson. The Smugglers (Random House, $24.95) offers more of the same. Set in the early 19th century, the story gets under way in Kent with 16-year-old John Spencer going aboard his father’s schooner Dragon to see the ship safely to London with a cargo of wool. But the Dragon’s captain, a supposedly reformed smuggler named Crowe, and his villainous crew have a different plan.

Spencer is tricked into a brandysmuggling run to France that in turn leads to a hair-raising cat-and-mouse game in a fog bank with the Royal Navy. Afterward, as Crowe is slowly revealed to be not just a criminal but a murderous psychopath, Spencer’s life hangs by a thread. With its smuggling lore and rousing action, the novel is an old-fashioned advenmre story. Best of all is Lawrence’s ability to capture the sounds and sights of voyages in the age of sail, and the exhilarating feeling of liberty they invoke even today. “Running free,” repeats one sailor after the helm calls their course. “Lord love me. I like this sailor talk.” E3