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Bat man returns

Globe and Mail
May 12, 2008

Writing about the secret lives of prehistoric bats has made Kenneth Oppel a kids-lit hit. The Toronto author tells Marsha Lederman why, in his latest novel, he's created a Canadian mythology

VANCOUVER Kenneth Oppel is no bat expert. He's not much of an animal lover, period. He has no pets, and no desire to acquire any. Beyond research, his only exposure to bats is the odd sighting from his deck on a summer evening. Nonetheless, for children everywhere, Oppel is a real-life bat man, thanks to his much-loved Silverwing trilogy and its prequel, Darkwing .

"I never thought I'd write talking-animal stories at all, but I made that exception for the bats," Oppel said during an interview last week from his home in Toronto . "Even then, it was important that I only write about bats and animals as if they were real animals. I didn't want to dress them up in clothing and give them all this sort of quasi-human technology, because I think that's silly."

In Darkwing , a novel he will discuss during several appearances this week at the Vancouver International Children's Festival (along with his ever-present prop: a plaster cast of a 50-million-year-old bat fossil), Oppel combines science with imagination and creates a world where bats are evolving as the dinosaurs die out, some 65 million years ago.

Its hero, Dusk, has abilities the others in his colony of chiropters (an Oppel-created name for pre-flight bats) do not have: echolocation and flight. At first labelled a freak, Dusk becomes essential in saving his colony from the increasingly threatening species around them.

"It's almost like a superhero story," Oppel says. "There's moments in all the comic books when Spider-Man discovers he can swing or climb up a wall or when Superman discovers he can fly.

"It's the same kind of thing for this little creature. He discovers he can see in the dark and then he can actually lift off the ground. Those were moments I thought would be really exciting to capture."

Despite his analogy, Oppel says he was never much of a comic-book fan. Growing up in Victoria and Halifax, he read a lot of Roald Dahl and books "about boys who had clubs, secret societies, adventures and invented things." He longed, more than anything, for a clubhouse in his backyard. He never got one.

"Sometimes it's better not to get things. You spend a lot more time yearning and thinking about it."

Oppel got his book-writing break when he was still almost a kid. At 14, he started writing his first book, Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure . He managed to get a copy to Dahl - the author of many acclaimed children's books including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - who was a friend of a family friend. Dahl liked it, and sent it on to his agent, who got the teenager a book deal.

"It's a great story," Oppel says. "I like to tell it on one hand, but on the other I feel a bit guilty telling it to kids, because it's such an unusual way to get your start as a writer."

Inevitably, when he does tell the story, he has audience members ask if they can send him a copy of a book they've written.

Oppel has a new book coming out in September - the third in the Airborn trilogy. Called Starclimber , it's his most overtly Canadian book to date. Set 100 years ago, the space race is on and Canada is in the lead. The Canadian government manages to launch the first voyage into space, covered by a photojournalist named Evelyn Karr - a character Oppel based on the iconic Canadian painter Emily Carr.

"I don't think any of my American editors realize that [the character is based on Emily Carr]," Oppel said, when asked if he's pressured to keep Canadian references to a minimum in order to satisfy an international audience.

"But you know what? Part of me is patriotic enough that I really want to [make overt Canadian references] because if Canada doesn't mythologize itself - and I'm doing it in an imaginary way - no one else is going to.

"I just feel like our references are so often American and not Canadian. So I'd rather write about some of the amazing things happening in our own country." (Even if they didn't really happen.) Oppel tests his books by reading first drafts aloud to his older children, aged 9 and 12 (his youngest is 3). While they are always encouraging and polite, he can surmise from their body language what's working and what isn't. "I watch them when I'm reading. And I can tell."

The way Oppel talks about childhood, his own and others', it becomes clear why he has had so much success as a children's author.

The guy gets kids. He may be 40, smart and wickedly funny, but he does not seem all that far removed from the boy who yearned for the backyard clubhouse.

"I still very clearly remember just how important the books of my childhood were to me back then, and just how much joy they gave me. How I could read them again and again and get this fabulous experience from these 200 pages of text. And I feel good that I can do that for some other kids."

Kenneth Oppel speaks on May 15 and 16 at the Vancouver International Children's Festival, which opens today ( ).