Being an ELA (English Language Arts) teacher is fun and exciting because I find myself excited about the literature I can introduce to my students, especially to the reluctant readers. David Bouchard says that it only takes one book to make someone a reader. Just that one book that hooks them in and makes them realize what they’ve been missing. There is joy in reading. That is why I was happy to read Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel.
Talking with the other ELA teacher at my new school, I guess this book went viral last year. It was so funny, engaging, and heart-warming that kids were waiting to read it, even asking parents to buy it so they could read it sooner. Half Brother is the story of Ben, a typical teenager whose parents work a lot. But his life changes forever when his parents move him from Ontario out to Victoria and they bring home his new baby brother: a chimpanzee!
Ben’s father is a scientist and is hoping to teach the chimp, Zan (after Tarzan), how to communicate and develop language skills through American Sign Language. They teach Zan new words, yet they don’t teach him a lot of nouns or connecting words, mostly just nouns. So when the experiment isn’t the success Ben’s Dad was hoping for, things get tense.
For Ben, Zan is not a pet or a scientific experiment: Zan is his brother. The two have a great relationship as the novel progresses. Ben tickles, hugs, kisses, plays with, and loves Zan. They become best buds, even to the point of Zan protecting Ben from some bullies.
The novel isn’t just about Zan and Ben, it’s about Ben growing up and becoming a teenager. He has angsty moments where he wants to make his own decisions, yet is held back by his parents’ rules. He wants to date a girl, but she rejects him and dates someone else. He learns about the cruelty of animal testing and becoming extremely angry at the work his father does with rats. It’s like Degrassi episodes, but with a chimp!
I can see the appeal of this book for young teens. It’s about pushing boundaries, dealing with anger, living with disappointment, creating friendship, and learning how to become your own person. The funny parts, like Zan stealing the dish soap and spraying everyone and everything, or like Zan loving Jell-O, or like Zan peeing on the father, help bring this novel to life and keeps the reader engaged and curious.
There are a few books that I keep on my shelf because I know that they engage reluctant readers, and Half Brother is now part of that collection!