The Nest

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Murray Whyte Entertainment Reporter

The Toronto Star
November 14, 2004

Among the many accomplishments of Matt Cruse, the 15-year-old hero of Airborn, Kenneth Oppel's fantasy novel set on a colossal, high-altitude airship that ferries the fabulously wealthy from continent to continent, are these:Battling the bloodthirsty pirates of the stratosphere, while bucking the worst of its storms; rescuing a dying balloonist and his damsel-in-distress granddaughter; and communing with the elusive, mythic creatures that inhabit the upper skies.

All this, of course, and puberty, too. But if anyone can relate to Matt's restless youth, it's Oppel himself. While still a high school student in Victoria, Oppel's first piece of fiction, written on summer holidays when he was 14, also became his first published book.

"Nothing I wrote subsequently resembled it," said Oppel, who at 37 still has the youthful, rumpled look of an undergraduate, sporting wire-rimmed glasses and a weathered, waffle-texture black shirt. "But the important thing it did was give me the confidence, conceit -- all of the above -- to think `I can do this. This can really be my profession.'"

For those immersed in the world of children's fiction, Oppel's teenage proclamation is easily verified.

Oppel is the author of more than 20 books. His Silverwing series, three books in all, have sold more than a million copies worldwide. Airborn, the vehicle for the overachieving Matt Cruse, is up for a Governor General's Award for children's fiction tomorrow. Alongside it, another kid's book, Peg And The Yeti, is nominated for children's illustrated book. Barbara Reid did the illustrations, while Oppel wrote the text. Airborn has also been acquired by a U.S. film production company, which plans to turn it into a big-budget feature.

That Oppel has been able to make a mark in a field that is suddenly glutted is a testament to his skill and commitment to the form, said Eleanor LaFave, owner of Mabel's Fables, a discerning children's bookstore with shops on Bloor St. W. and Mount Pleasant Rd.

"When it comes to finding the quality work, it's really important," she said. "What we're looking for is something that will become a perennial favourite, not something faddish or fleeting. And Ken is always present on our shelves."

Booksellers like LaFave have seen their options to fill those shelves swell greatly in recent years. According to Statistics Canada, Canadian publishers released 1,152 children's books in 1996/97. That number had grown to 2,281 by 2001. In the U.S., the kid's book industry bloomed from $370 million (U.S.) in 1992 to almost $700 million (U.S.) in 2003.

It will come as a surprise to no-one that this is a direct result of the Harry Potter effect: Since the debut of J.K. Rowling's hugely popular series in 1997, the market has flooded with authors migrating from adult fiction to children's, and ready-made series being touted as, of course, the next Harry Potter.

Isabel Allende, Clive Barker, Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard and Joyce Carol Oates are among the established authors who are taking a turn at the burgeoning kid lit market Ñ as are such un-authorly types as Madonna, John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. Oppel allows that the Potter boom might have been of some help to him. "The Silverwing books benefited nominally from the Rowling trickle-down effect, because they were nominally fantasy," he said during an interview in his High Park home.

Silverwing, however, engaged in an original motif, portraying the richly imagined world of a race of exceptional bats.

"What I have a problem with, and it happens more and more now, in the wake of Harry Potter, are announcements seemingly every week of a new fantasy trilogy," he said. "Unless you go away in a cave for 10 years and come out with three books, I just defy anyone to be able to envisage an entire, fully realized trilogy in one sitting. But everyone now wants a trilogy, a series Ñ a franchise. Publishers don't even have to ask, or put pressure on anyone for more of the same because the market is flooded with wizards, and orcs and goblins and the whole sad bunch of them."

Oppel comes from a different place. "I don't write medieval fantasy, or science fiction or stuff going on on other planets. I've never really liked that," he said.

"I always liked that what if question -- `what if there was an undiscovered species of mammal, with wings? Or, what does the world look like to a bat? How do they see and interpret the world?' It's ideas like that that allow my imagination to run, and imagine a different way of seeing or experiencing the world."

In doing so, Oppel puts himself firmly in the place of his audience -- the no-longer-kiddies, not-quite-adults who are drawn to his fantastic adventures. "I remember my childhood really quite well Ñ the things that excited me, the books I read, the games I played, the things that gave me joy Ñ and I'm quite sure that's a prerequisite for writing for kids," he said.

"People who are still in touch with their childhood, who loved it, the idea of it and how much potential there is in that moment in your life. Everything is new, waiting to be discovered and explored."

It's that same sense that allows him to connect with his audience as he does, LaFave said. "He knows how kids that age read. Really good kids' books like his and Harry (Potter) have an underlying rhythm that keep kids moving forward. Not everyone has that skill. When you do, though, it really becomes part of a younger person's culture. It comes alive."

Oppel also has a respect for his readers that shows in his attention to his characters, whether a bat, Matt Cruse, or Matt's Airborn partner-in-adventure, Kate De Vries, with whom Matt shares near-equal billing.

"He writes for boys and girls, kids and adults," LaFave said. "His characters are completely developed and fully formed."

At readings, Oppel is known for his wry wit, and easy way with children and parents alike. "He has a great presence," LaFave said. "He'll have all the kids laughing on one hand, and their parents on the other, at something else entirely."

It's a hint, LaFave said, of Oppel's elusive Rowling-esque quality -- to write children's books that are guiltily, but keenly consumed by adults as well.

Oppel just shrugs at the notion. "Every writer would stand up like Pavlov's dog if they had the opportunity at a crossover audience," he said, nonplussed.

"I like to think that Airborne especially is the kind of story that anyone can read. It's in the spirit of a Jules Verne, or Robert Louis Stevenson. It's a classic adventure story. Really, when I write, I have no image of the ideal reader in my mind. I'm driven by the story that I'm involved with."

Oppel's early start might help keep him touch with that audience nonetheless. And how it came about instilled in him a wonder that has never left. As a young person, he idolized the work of British children's writer Roald Dahl, author of such books as James And The Giant Peach and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

After a summer spent creating his adolescent masterpiece, he had a meeting with fate. "We had a family friend who knew Dahl, and he was making a trip to England. He knew I was an aspiring writer, so he asked me if I would like him to take my manuscript to show him," Oppel recalled, smiling broadly at the memory. "So I said, "Yes! Um, please.'"

Dahl liked the story well enough to pass it on to his own literary agent in Britain, who in turn was impressed enough to take Oppel on as a client. They sold the book, Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, to a publisher, and by the time Oppel was in Grade 11, his writing career had begun.

Oppel took a break from it, however, going from high school to the University of Toronto. He published his second children's book in his final year, as part of a senior creative writing course.

As the years went on, Oppel wrote adult fiction as well, such as The Devil's Cure, a thriller about the cure for cancer lurking in the genetic structure of an escaped murderer, but found it ultimately unfulfilling.

"Writing for an older age felt more like work to me," he said. "I felt less free, more fettered. It killed a certain part of the fun of writing for me."

But abandoning adult work for kid lit placed him squarely in a literary ghetto, he said. "And there are a lot of them in literature," he laughed. "Children's authors would be happier if everyone read their books, but I'm sure haiku writers would love to see a huge upswing in haiku readership, too."

Oppel's irritation was minor, and brief. "If you had asked me about it seven years ago. I would have said, `Oh, yeah, it would be great if children's books were more prominent, or got more literary attention.' I had more of a bee in my bonnet then," he said. "But now, I realize how lucky I am. I'm just so happy writing kids books. I don't really have any other aspirations to do anything other than what I'm doing."

November 14, 2004
Copyright 2004 The Toronto Star