Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Review: Half Brother, by Kenneth Oppel

Half Brother is heartwarming, thought-provoking, and sad all at the same time.

At first, thirteen-year-old Ben isn’t thrilled about his new “baby brother” – an 8-day-old chimpanzee. His mother and father are both researchers who are studying chimp behavior, and their goal is to try to raise the chimp (named Zan) as a human child and teach him language using American Sign Language.

Zan becomes a part of the family – he eats in his high chair, he wears clothes and a diaper, he drinks a bottle, he plays with toys – and Ben begins to feel like Zan really is his little brother. In order to take on this project, his family has moved across Canada, so Ben must make new friends, and get used to a new school and a new life, as well as his new brother.

But, Zan really can’t be a human. He is taken care of and “trained” by grad students, and each behavior is recorded. He does begin to learn words, at a very fast pace, and amazes them all.  But, he can’t sit still, he throws chimp-sized tantrums, and he bites when he is angry. And he’s still a baby. An adult chimp will be many times stronger than any human.

The reader knows this story isn’t going to fade away smoothly into “happy every after.” First, there are funding difficulties when some grants don’t come through. Ben has become very attached to Zan, and he’s been assured by his parents that Zan will be around for a long time. But his dad treats Zan like a project – not like a son. Things fall apart rapidly, and the last part of the story is about Ben trying to make sure Zan, his little brother, is always safe and happy.

Oppel's story is really about family. What makes a family? What is language? Does Zan really learn language? There are strong messages about mistreatment of animals for experimentation, but the book isn’t preachy. I found myself tearing up a bit during some parts of the book, and I”ve still been thinking about this book days after I’ve finished reading.

I can see this book being used for some excellent class discussions about a variety of issues. I will be recommending this to my animal lovers; I’m sure they will have many good things to say about this one.

Published by Scholastic, 2010
Copy obtained from the library
375 pages (qualifies for my 350 Page Book Challenge!)

Rating: 4/5

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  1. Sounds like it's a book that would generate a lot of conversation, perfect for a book group. I would be interested to read it because I can't quite decide whether this kind of research is ethical or not.

  2. I initially thought this was going to be a kind of cheesy book, but I was happily surprised. I really enjoyed it! I've tried to book talk it and it just doesn't seem to get an enthusiastic response...I'm still trying though. :-)

  3. Oh I'm so glad it's not preachy! I hate kids books (ok any kind of book) that has the message banging you over the head. It sounds interesting.

  4. This review makes me really want to read the book. I hadn't heard anything about it until now but it sounds like a really interesting story.

    However, I already see my dog as my child and a member of my family. I'm not sure I could handle a story where there is the possibility of loosing a family member like that. I would probably cry the entire time.


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