Wednesday, October 27, 2010

What I've Been Up To -- Part II

After the Calgary-Banff Wordfest, the Half Brother book tour took me off to Victoria BC, my hometown, where I was very glad to see, finally, a statue of Emily Carr in the Inner Harbour, right in front of the Empress hotel. She has her monkey, Woo, on her shoulder.

I had a signing at the incomparable Munro's Books on Government Street, one of my favourite indepedant bookstores in the country. They put up a fancy red banner for me...

...gave my books a very flattering window display...

... and had a nice lineup of people waiting inside...

This is my intent signing face.

A highlight of the west coast book tour was getting to take my first harbour to harbour float plane, a Turbo Otter, from Victoria to Vancouver. Here's the ride...
And here's the pilot. I could actually see the altimenter and what he was dong the whole time. I think at one point he may have been scrolling through his iPod but I'm not sure...

It was sadly overcast when we approached Vancouver, but it was still a fine sight.

Here we are making our final landing approach in the harbour...

And a litle lower still... and then splashing down beside the Pan Pacific Hotel. Fantastic!

And then it was the Vancouver International Writers Festival where I did six events for groups like this:

Some highlights of Vancouver were meeting fellow YA authors Kevin Sylvester (also a CBC radio personality), and Australian writer Richard Newsome who has just released a really fun sounding book called The Billionaire's Curse. He was very funny. We shared an event in Vancouver -- here he is, doing his thing.

It was also great to catch up my long-time writer buddy Richard Scrimger, and we shared a panel with YA luminary Martha Brooks to talk about, um, writerly things. Another highlight was an impromptu breakfast with writer Yann Martel and his wife, YA author Alice Kuipers who, as the parents of an 18 month old, were up early and the only other people in the hotel dining room! They were there with Alice's parents, visiting from the UK, and I think they felt sorry for me, so they kindly invited me to join them. It was very pleasant to be included in a family breakfast after being away from my own family for so long. Oh, and the conversation was excellent!

And then home!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hail Britannia! Advance love for HALF BROTHER

HALF BROTHER will be published in January in the United Kingdom by the fabulous David Fickling Books, which brought the world The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Even though my pub date is a few months away, we just got this advance review in the Bookseller magazine. I love it when this happens...

‘Kenneth Oppel’s standalone novel for young adults, HALF BROTHER, is a compulsively readable, extraordinarily gripping and moving book. Thirteen-year-old Ben’s world is turned upside down when his research scientist parents adopt a newborn chimp into the family to raise as a human child in an experiment to see if they can teach it to communicate using language. This is a meticulously researched book and the development of the experiment is very absorbing, but it’s Oppel’s ability to realise the complexity of Ben’s emotions towards his ‘half brother’ which makes it a triumph.’

--Lindsey Stainer, Blackwell’s, in The Bookseller, 15 Oct 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

What I've Been Up To -- Part I

 For the past four weeks I've been travelling around Canada and the United States, talking up my latest novel, Half Brother. It started at the Telling Tales Festival in Rockton ON, at the fabulous Westfield Village heritage site, which is a restored Victorian town, complete with theatre, train station, pharmacy and general store. It was a beautiful day, packed with kids -- who didn't realize they were in for a stealth reading by Robert Munsch -- I could hear the screams of excitement all the way from the hospitality tent! Other authors and illustrators present included Jeremy Tankard (Grumpy Bird), Edward Wallace, Paul Yee and Linda Granfield.

Next stop was Chicago (Naperville ) where the wonderful independent bookstore, Andersons was holding its 7th annual YA literature conference for over 300 teacher-librarians. I was one of the featured speakers, and sat on a couple of panels with Pam  Munoz Ryan (her new book is called The Dreamer) and Brue Balliet (whose latest is The Danger Box). I got a chance to meet up with my editor (and fellow writer) David Levithan, and meet John Green (Will Grayson Will Grayson), and Charles Benoit who's written his first YA novel called You.

After that it was back to Toronto for Word on the Street, where I read at the Scotiabank Bestsellers Tent, and promptly boarded a plane and went to Houston for four days of school visits, and then on to the Austin Teen Book Festival.

 I was on three panels with fellow YA writers (from left to right); Susane Colosanti (Something Like Fate), Jon Skovron (Struts and Frets), keynote speaker Ellen Hopkins (Fallout) and Charles Benoit (You). It was great fun to get to know all these writers (I was the token Canadian) including James Dashner, whose Maze Runner has become such a huge hit.

It was my first time in Austin and it was a very pleasant surprise-- a vibrant city filled with music bars and restaurants -- and sidewalks! And people on them! Bikes, the headquarters for Whole Foods, and a fabulous independent store called BookPeople. There is also the Congress Avenue bridge which is home to 1,5 million bats. Supposedly they all swoop up into the sky at dusk, like an image from the Apocalypse-- I'd heard all about this while researching Silverwing over a decade ago. So naturally I went down to wait on the bridge with hundreds of other hopeful bat watchers and after an hour of waiting we were rewarded with -- nothing. The bats were a no show. I blame the easy availability of fast food.

 Next stop: Calgary for Worfdest, aways a favourite of mine, organized by the inimicable Anne Green,who will be stepping down as director this year. I was paired up with fellow YA writer Deborah Kerbel (whose new book is the ghost story Lure.) Originally we were sheduled to make one presentation at the 270-seat Vertigo Playhouse, but when that sold out, they added a second event, which sold out as well. So a third was added!

Me reading a selection of the novel to the kids...

Audience held spellbound by my presentation -- or just secretly revelling in the fact they're missing Math class.

After our Calgary events, Deborah (left) and I were taken up to Banff to do one last even at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
When I got up for breakfast, Banff looked like this...

Then after a few minutes it stopped raining and looked like this...

Then it snowed violently for a little while and looked like this...

So that was Calgary-Banff Wordfest. Check back for the next stops on the tour: Victoria and the Vancouver International Writers Festival....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rejected chimps find shelter at Fauna Foundation

The Montreal Gazette

Kenneth Oppel wanted to write a book for teens about chimpanzees - specifically about chimpanzees who were raised as humans in the 1960s and 1970s and taught sign language to communicate.

And he wanted to write about what happened to these chimpanzees when they were no longer cute babies and became too large to follow household rules.

The book is called Half Brother (HarperCollins), and the Governor General's Award-winning author did part of his research at the Fauna Foundation, a sanctuary for abused animals located just outside Chambly in the Monteregie region.

The sanctuary is home to 12 adult chimpanzees, most of whom were rescued from biomedical facilities.

"It was a really energizing trip," Toronto-based Oppel said of his visit to the Fauna sanctuary in 2008. "I learned so much about how chimpanzees behave in captivity, how they assert their domination.

"I was struck by their power and the power of their scent. You feel respectful. Some of them came close to have a look at me, and one tossed a green pepper at me."

There are about 600 chimpanzees in sanctuaries in the United States alone. Some of them worked in the entertainment industry, others were raised as pets, others came from zoos or were the offspring of chimpanzees used way back for space-travel experiments. Many come from biomedical facilities.

All chimps come to sanctuaries as damaged goods -traumatized by repeated scientific experimentation and extended periods spent in isolation and cramped quarters. Those raised by humans suffered the betrayal of being rejected and removed from familiar surroundings when they got too big or suffered from stress disorders from being forced to do tricks to entertain.

The Fauna Foundation has cared for 19 chimpanzees since veterinarian Richard Allan and Gloria Grow opened the facility in 1997. Seven chimpanzees have died. Their life expectancy is 40 to 50 years.

"It was beautiful to see how they were so loved by the staff. Gloria loves those chimps, and they don't have to do anything," Oppel said. "That is a great achievement because we all put conditions on how we love each other. That's an uncomfortable truth about human relationships."

Oppel had been kicking around the idea of writing a book about great apes for 20 years. He was inspired to start writing the book after reading the obituary of Washoe, a chimpanzee who was raised by humans and taught sign language in the late 1960s. Oppel also read about Sarah, a chimp who began learning sign language as part of a behavioural experiment during the same period. She now lives at a sanctuary in Louisiana and is 47 years old.

When Washoe became too large to control, she was taken from the only family she knew and placed in unfamiliar surroundings. She was 42 years old when she died in 2007.

In Half Brother, infant chimp Zan is ripped from his mother's breast (she is tranquilized at the time) and taken into the Tomlin household to be raised as a human and taught sign language. The Tomlins' teenage son Ben grows to love Zan and becomes his protector and saviour after the Tomlins shut down the sign-language experiment and ship Zan off to a horrible "sanctuary."

Not all sanctuaries are created equal. "Just like there are good doctors and bad doctors, there are good sanctuaries and bad sanctuaries," Grow said. "At the Fauna Foundation, we try to give the chimpanzees the peace and comfort they deserve after coming from such traumatic backgrounds."

Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relative. They have definite likes and dislikes and personalities.

The chimps at the Fauna sanctuary love to paint pictures, drink tea, eat spaghetti from a bowl and play with toys and trinkets. Colourful hair "scrunchies" are a hit right now, especially with alpha male Binky, 21, who likes to wear a neoncoloured scrunchy on his upper arm. (The scrunchies are so popular, a woman in Ontario sews extra-large ones so that they don't cut off circulation in the chimps' arms.)

The staff has also designed an enrichment program for the chimps. The recently introduced construction-work theme was particularly popular. The chimps had a blast playing with the toy tools.

They have fun, but they are also prone to moods, just like us, and that's when their size and strength can come into serious play.

"One of the biggest dangers is for people to think chimpanzees can be perfect and predictable pets," Oppel said. "I was in the middle of writing Half Brother when that horrible thing happened in the United States. Chimps are not meant to be pets."

Last February, Travis, an adult male chimp weighing 230 pounds, attacked a friend of his owner, blinding her and severing her nose, ears and both hands. Travis was shot by a police officer while trying to attack another officer.

The Fauna Foundation is located on 60 hectares and includes concrete buildings and a series of specially designed islands where the chimpanzees can hang out. The buildings are locked up tight to prevent escapes, and the area is surrounded by a powerful electric fence.

"Kenneth's book is great because it captures everything about a chimp's life in captivity, and it didn't turn into the Pollyanna world of chimpanzees," Grow said. "It's educational and it's based on fact. And he's written it for exactly the right audience. I recently did some work with students from Miss Edgar's and Miss Cramp's School. They were so engaged and wrote letters to (government officials) about the unethical treatment of chimpanzees. They are the generation that will change things. They are the ones that will read Kenneth's book and then talk about why it's not right to use chimpanzees in commercials."

Grow is one of the founders of the recently established North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, an organization dedicated to the health and survival of quality sanctuaries for abused animals.

Is the Fauna Foundation accepting new chimps? "That's hard to say right now," Grow said. "It costs a lot to care for them ($250,000 a year) and they live a long time. We have to make sure the foundation is financially secure and that there are measures in place to care for the chimpanzees after we are gone. They are here for the rest of their lives."

Half Brother is in stores now.

For information about donating to the Fauna Foundation,

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