AIRSHIPS CRUISE THE SKIES IN KENNETH OPPEL'S KID-LIT ADVENTURE SERIES
By Rachel Giese
December 6, 2005
Once upon a time, back in the 1970s and 1980s, books for children and young adults were firmly grounded in reality. Out were the quaint stories about talking hedgehogs and the suburban fantasy of Dick and Jane. In were naturalistic books about divorce, abuse, politics, peer pressure and the humiliations of puberty by authors like Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton. Even Dr. Seuss, that great, anarchic writer who rarely condescended to children by trying to teach them a lesson, weighed in with "issue" books of his own: the environmentalist fable The Lorax (1971) and The Butter Battle Book (1984), which ended with the feuding Yooks and Zooks on the brink of a nuclear holocaust
Then along came J.K. Rowling and with her what appeared to be the perfect genre for a successful children's book: fantasy. The more witches, wizards and dragons, the better. Though the popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had persisted over the years, Rowling's Harry Potter series was a publishing phenomenon like no other. Eight years after Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published, books about magic - and their associated toy/video game/movie/DVD/clothing line tie-ins - glut the shelves in the kids sections of bookstores. Harry Potter has made the British author a millionaire several times over, and with only one book left in the series and sales beginning to flag, publishers are anxious to find "the next J.K. Rowling."
Canada's Kenneth Oppel would be a likely candidate. The 39-year-old author has published more than 20 picture and young adult books (as well as one adult mystery novel). He's won dozens of awards, including a Governor General's Award for Children's Literature, a Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award and an American Library Association Notable Book for Children award. His best-selling Silverwing trilogy, a fantasy series about bats, has been translated into nine languages. His latest young adult books, Airborn and Skybreaker, which are old-fashioned Jules Verne-esque adventure tales, have proven to be just as popular.
"I always get asked about J.K. Rowling," says Oppel over coffee a month ago. "I'm grateful to her for many reasons. It was such a huge media story and it enlarged the fantasy market. It made it okay for adults to read children's books. The problem is that everyone is now writing fantasy for kids. Everything is a trilogy or series. The market has been saturated. As a result, there's a real sense of ennui in the genre."
Resembling a barely grown-up schoolboy in a rumply, faded sweater and wire-rimmed glasses, he doesn't look as world-weary as he sounds. The truth is, with his writerly curiosity and wild inventiveness, he has a gift for fantasy, saturated market or not. Before he began writing Airborn - which is set on a luxury airship in a fictionalized take on the early 20th century - he imagined "a Titanic in the sky." Oppel mapped out the design of the Aurora from the engine room to the galley to the captain's quarters.
"I loved researching Airborn and Skybreaker. I knew I needed to get the facts just right so that the reader would believe me when I started to make things up. The books are set in a place that looks a lot like the Edwardian period. Everything seemed so much more beautiful then. I don't want to romanticize the era too much - it was the time of robber barons, coal burning and child labour - but it seems that the past had more potential than the present does. There was that late Victorian zeal for classification. People were filled with wonder. There's probably more innovation now, but it's not really that exciting. You know, it's great that my phone can now take pictures, but what's that compared to discovering a new species or seeing the first skyscraper go up?"
Picking up where Airborn left off, Skybreaker finds 16-year-old Matt Cruse still floundering at the Airship Academy, despite his natural talent for flight. He's also nonplussed by his entanglement with Kate, a posh aspiring scientist. During a training flight, Matt spots a long-lost ghost ship, rumoured to be carrying a fortune in treasure. Pursued by pirates who want to find the treasure first, Matt embarks on a salvage mission of his own, alongside Kate, a mysterious Roma girl named Nadira, who literally holds the key to the ghost ship, and dashing Captain Hal Slater, who seems to have set his own romantic sights on Kate.
It's a page-turner of a book, richly imagined, less fantasy than the kind of adventure story Robert Louis Stevenson might have written. But despite the frequent comparisons to Stevenson and Verne, Oppel says he's never read those authors - just absorbed the ideas of those books through a kind of cultural osmosis.
"I got fascinated with airships," he says. "In the 1920s and early '30s, airships were seen as the future. No one thought that planes were the way to go. They were too dangerous and precarious. The airship was like a luxury liner. You could travel from Germany to Brazil on the Hindenburg in five days and it always flew low enough that you would have a view. People slept in cabins and ate in a formal dining room. Can you imagine? I just fell in love with the idea of these ships and from there, the story came out."
Oppel has always immersed himself in the worlds of his fiction, even when he was just a kid. Like fellow Canadian children's writer Gordon Korman, who wrote his first book at 12, Oppel is a bit of a prodigy. When he was 15 and deep into his video game phase (which had followed a Star Wars phase and a Dungeons and Dragons phase), Oppel wrote Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, a novella-length story about a boy addicted to video games. A family friend who knew Roald Dahl (who just happened to be one of Oppel's favourite authors) passed a copy of it along to the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory writer. Dahl liked it enough to pass it on to his agent. A deal was struck and Oppel was published at 18.
His output since then would put most writers to shame. In addition to his fiction, Oppel, who lives in Toronto with his wife and three kids, has also written several screenplays. Most days, he still manages his personal quota of 1,000 words. "Then I know I'm actually getting something done." Currently, he's at work on a prequel to the Silverwing series.
Writing for children is more liberating than writing for adults, he says. "All I need is a good, exciting story that's a cerebral pleasure for me. That's where it starts. I think a lot of children's writers aren't very conscious of writing for kids. They just write about what interests them. That's why a lot of adults read those books, like Harry Potter, or Philip Pullman's Dark Materials series. Even Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time had two marketing campaigns and two covers: one for kids and one for adults."
Though not as dark as his benefactor Dahl, Oppel is comfortable taking his readers into treacherous places and, like Dahl, happy to let his young characters battle adults - sometimes to the death - and win. "Kids believe so strongly in their own immortality that they can handle fairy tales, which are full of murderous parents and cannibals and all kinds of horrors. They aren't yet aware of what it really means for a child to be abandoned, or orphaned, or attacked by an adult. But they do understand what it feels like to be hurt, or frightened, or powerless, or very, very angry. That's why they're so wonderful to write for. They understand the raw emotional boil."
Rachel Giese writes about the arts for CBC.ca.