Oppel, Kenneth 1967–
Oppel, Kenneth 1967–
PERSONAL: Born August 31, 1967, in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada; son of Wilfred (a lawyer) and Audrey (a visual artist; maiden name, Young) Oppel; married Philippa Sheppard (a university professor), September 8, 1990; children: Sophia Marie. Education: University of Toronto, B.A., 1989. Hobbies and other interests: Photography, reading, cross-country skiing, watching movies, attending the theater.
ADDRESSES: Home—19 Delaware Ave., Toronto, Ontario M6H 2S8, Canada.
CAREER: Freelance writer and book reviewer, 1988–; Scholastic Canada, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada, associate editor, 1989; Quill & Quire, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Books for Young People editor, 1995–96.
MEMBER: Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP), Writers' Union of Canada.
AWARDS, HONORS: Canada Permanent Trust Short Story Competition second prize winner, 1983, for "Diving"; Royal Commonwealth Essay Competition second prize winner, 1983, for a research paper on developing countries; Canadian Library Association Notable Book, 1991, for The Live-Forever Machine; City of Toronto Book Awards finalist, 1992, and Our Choice selection, Canadian Children's Book Centre, 1992–93, both for Cosimo Cat; Canadian Library Association Notable Book, 1993, for Dead Water Zone; Our Choice recommendation, Canadian Children's Book Centre, 1995–96, for Follow That Star; Air Canada Award, Canadian Authors' Association, 1995, for "outstanding promise" demonstrated by a young (under thirty years old) Canadian writer; Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award, 2000, for Sunwing; Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and American Library Association Top Ten Books for Young Adults list, both 2004, both for Airborn; Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire Book Award (Toronto, Ontario, Canada chapter), 2004, for Peg and the Yeti.
Cosimo Cat, illustrated by Regolo Ricci, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 1991.
Follow That Star, illustrated by Kim LaFave, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.
Peg and the Whale, illustrated by Terry Widener, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Peg and the Yeti, illustrated by Barbara Reid, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985.
A Bad Case of Ghosts, illustrated by Peter Utton, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993, reprinted, illustrated by Sam Sisco, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
A Bad Case of Magic, illustrated by Peter Utton, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993, reprinted as A Strange Case of Magic, illustrated by Sam Sisco, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
Cosmic Snapshots, illustrated by Guy Parker-Reese, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
Galactic Snapshots, illustrated by Guy Parker-Reese, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1993.
A Bad Case of Dinosaurs, illustrated by Peter Utton, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994, reprinted as An Incredible Case of Dinosaurs, illustrated by Sam Sisco, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
A Bad Case of Robots, illustrated by Peter Utton, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994, reprinted as A Crazy Case of Robots, illustrated by Sam Sisco, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
Emma's Emu, illustrated by Carolyn Crossland, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
A Bad Case of Super-Goo, illustrated by Peter Utton, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996, reprinted as A Weird Case of Super-Goo, illustrated by Sam Sisco, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
A Creepy Case of Vampires, illustrated by Sam Sisco, Scholastic Canada (Markham, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
YOUNG ADULT FICTION
The Live-Forever Machine, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990.
Dead Water Zone, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
Silverwing, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.
Sunwing, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2000.
Firewing, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
Airborn, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004
Skybreaker, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005
Several of Oppel's screenplays have been optioned for film, including Live-Forever Machine, 1990; Dead Water Zone, 1993; Virtual Murder, 1993; Brothers Grim, 1994; (with Michael McGowan) Entitled, 1996; The Devil's Cure, 1997; and The Outlaw (an adaptation of The Outlaw of Megantic by Bernard Epps), commissioned, 1997.
Devil's Cure (adult novel), HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001.
Also author of short story "Diving."
ADAPTATIONS: Airborn was optioned for a feature film by Universal Pictures.
SIDELIGHTS: Kenneth Oppel has written numerous books for young people. Ranging from picture books and first readers to young adult fiction, his work is popular with readers and respected by colleagues. In her Toronto Globe and Mail review of Dead Water Zone, his second novel for young adults, Elizabeth MacCallum stated, "if second novels really are supposed to separate the men from the boys, I can tell you now, this is one author who has grown up fast."
What is most impressive about Oppel's body of work is the amount he has published before the age of twenty-nine. In recognition of this accomplishment, the Canadian Authors' Association awarded him the 1995 Air Canada Award for promise demonstrated by a young Canadian writer.
Oppel definitely got off to an earlier start than most authors. He wrote his first book when he was fourteen. That book, Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, was the stylistic forerunner of the Bad Case of series of junior novels, which Quill & Quire reviewer Fred Boer has recommended as "excellent choices for readers just graduating to chapter books—full of fun, action, and the occasional deliciously scary bit."
As a young reader, Oppel, like such distinguished Canadian authors as short story writer Alice Munro and children's novelist Kit Pearson, was inspired by L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon series. He related strongly to Emily's dream of becoming a published writer and by grade seven determined that he, too, would write. He noted in Writing Stories, Making Pictures: Biographies of 150 Canadian Children's Authors and Illustrators: "I remember making a vow to my father when I was thirteen, that I wanted to have something published before I'd turned fourteen." Although that may not have been an uncommon goal for ambitious young teens with a flair for writing, it was definitely uncommon that Oppel published a novel before he was out of high school. The story behind that accomplishment is almost too good to be true.
As a pre-teen, Oppel had a strong interest in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. By the time he was fourteen, however, that interest had evolved into a passion for video games. His first book, Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure, was a result of that video-gaming enthusiasm. "Writing it was good therapy," he remarked in Writing Stories, Making Pictures, "a withdrawal technique if you will, enabling me to experience video games vicariously without spending huge amounts of money."
Oppel used pencil to write the first draft of his book the summer he was fourteen. He rewrote it the following summer and got his lucky break. A family friend who knew British children's author Roald Dahl agreed to show him Oppel's story. Dahl was impressed enough to pass it on to his own literary agent. The agent agreed to represent the book and promptly sold it to publishers in London and New York.
Oppel soon learned that such early success is not always an unmitigated blessing. "Having a literary agent and my first book published made me cocky, and I quickly wrote another children's book that was so bad no one would publish it. That cooled me down a bit," he wrote in Kids Can Press's "Meet Kenneth Oppel." Cooling down meant graduating from high school in Victoria, British Columbia, and heading to the University of Toronto to study English literature and cinema. Fascinated by his cinema studies, Oppel began making student films. When, in his final undergraduate year, he turned again to writing children's books, it was inevitable that his film experience would influence his literary style.
The Live-Forever Machine, written for an independent studies course in creative writing, demonstrated the new cinematic influence. The story of fourteen-year-old Eric, who stumbles upon two men who discovered the secret of immortality in 391 A.D. and have been chasing each other through history ever since, reads as though a camera is mounted on Eric's shoulders. The reader sees, as if through a camera lens, a dank underworld where the Live-Forever machine is jealously guarded, a deceptively bland urban upper world melting under a ferocious sun, and a cool museum that offers refuge from the heat and a passageway into the past.
The techniques and themes introduced in The Live-Forever Machine continue to surface in Oppel's books for young adults. Readers can count on quickly spliced scenes, flashbacks, an obsession with the past and immortality, and young protagonists struggling to decipher their place in the world.
Dead Water Zone, Oppel's second novel, drew on and further developed the complexities of scene and character introduced in The Live-Forever Machine. Elizabeth S. Watson of Horn Book, Lucinda Lockwood of the School Library Journal, and Elizabeth MacCallum of the Toronto Globe and Mail all described Dead Water Zone as "Dickensian" in scope and flavor. MacCallum also commented: "Perhaps in fantasy and science fiction most of all, where the reader must be convinced of the reality of an imaginary universe in which a whole world of different conditions apply, the writer must be able to paint a convincing scene with words. Oppel's world is indisputable from the first paragraph."
In Silverwing, his third novel for young people, Oppel introduces yet another world, one of bats. Quill & Quire reviewer John Wilson commented: "Silverwing creates a complete culture with its own mythology, lore, and rationale. Like all books in this genre, its success depends upon the convincing portrayal of a plausible world. This Kenneth Oppel has achieved."
Since leaving a job at a children's book publisher, Oppel has devoted himself to writing full time. The Live-Forever Machine provides a clue to the role that writ-ing now plays in his life. In the book, Eric's father, an aspiring writer, rushes home from his conductor's job to get directly to his typewriter. "'There,' he said after a few moments. 'Had that sentence banging around in my head all the way home.'" Like Eric's father, Oppel is consumed by a story once It is underway. Writing is more than a nine-to-five job. "I'm always thinking about it—during meals, in the evening, weekends, first thing when I wake up in the morning," he wrote in Kids Can Press's "Meet Kenneth Oppel."
Oppel also explained his prodigious literary output in "Meet Kenneth Oppel." "I married in September 1990 and we moved to Oxford. We were very poor, and I think it was fear of total destitution that made me as productive as I was during the next eighteen months." During those months, he completed Dead Water Zone, three junior novels, a screenplay, and a picture book.
In his headlong pursuit of excellence, Oppel is much like his fictional characters. The protagonists in his stories all have a restless intelligence. Rather than relying on what adults tell them to believe, they are driven to find answers on their own. In The Live-Forever Machine, Eric wants to find out for himself whether history really matters. In Dead Water Zone, Paul opts to discover firsthand the truth about the toxic Watertown. Shade, the irrepressibly curious young bat in Silverwing, sets out on a dangerous journey to discover the truth about what happened to his lost father and which of the many versions of history he should believe. Oppel's characters, nonconformists all, speak directly and meaningfully to young readers.
In spite of his success in the field of children's literature, Oppel has not confined his writing exclusively to children's books. He has also gained a reputation for screen writing. His screenplay for The Live-Forever Machine was optioned for film even before the book was published. An adult screenplay, Virtual Murder, about a virtual reality theme park in which nothing is legal or illegal, was optioned by a Hollywood film producer in 1993.
After experimenting with adult fiction in the year 2000 medical thriller Devil's Cure, Oppel returned to young adult titles, enlarging the saga of bats begun in Silverwing. With Sunwing and Firewing, the author continues the adventures of Shade, as he attempts to be reunited with his colony of bats. In Sunwing Shade's search for his father brings him into a dangerous forest and also pits him against his old enemy, Goth, leader of a colony of vampire bats. In Firewing, Shade goes to the rescue of his own son, Griffin, trapped in the Underworld. Michael Jung, reviewing Firewing in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, felt that it, like the earlier volumes in the series, displayed "a masterful blend of humor, suspense, fantasy, and adventure that draws readers into the tale." Writing in Kliatt, Hugh Flick, Jr., called the same novel a "metaphysical coming-of-age tale."
Oppel turns his attention to flight of another variety in Airborn and Skybreaker, two young adult novels featuring Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries and their adventures on a luxury airship or dirigible. Set near the beginning of the twentieth century, these books feature a wealth of detail about such airships, combined with romance and adventure. In the first title, Airborn, Matt, a cabin boy who helps save his airship from a mid-air collision, later survives an attack by pirates and a crash-landing on a desert island where he and Kate discover a strange and dangerous species of animal. Kliatt reviewer Paula Rohrlick found this title an "exciting tale," and Booklist contributor Jennifer Matson also praised the "rip-roaring" adventures Matt and Kate experience in their first outing together. Skybreaker is a continuation of such adventures, described by a Kirkus Reviews contributor as "creative, compelling, nicely unpredictable and alive with nature and technology." Matt, now an officer in training aboard a rundown airship, spots another airship that has been lost for many years. Matt memorizes the coordinates, for the ship in question is full of booty, and soon he is on the hunt for it, aided again by Kate. This second installment also earned favorable reviews. Matson, writing in Booklist, thought that readers "will happily stay aboard to the tinglingly good conclusion." According to School Library Journal critic Sharon Rawlins: "This worthy companion to Airborn maintains its roller-coaster thrills in true swashbuckling style."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Canadian Children's Book Centre, Writing Stories, Making Pictures: Biographies of 150 Canadian Children's Authors and Illustrators, Canadian Children's Book Centre (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995, pp. 245-247.
Oppel, Kenneth, The Live-Forever Machine, Kids Can Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990, p. 23.
Booklist, April 15, 2005, Jennifer Matson, "Booklist Interview: Kenneth Oppel," p. 1465, and "Top Ten Fantasy Books for Youth," review of Airborn, p. 1467; November 15, 2005, Jennifer Matson, review of Skybreaker, p. 38.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 19, 1992, Elizabeth MacCallum, review of Dead Water Zone, p. C19.
Horn Book, November-December, 1993, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Dead Water Zone, p. 747; March-April, 2005, "Michael L. Printz Award," p. 236.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, December, 2003, Michael Jung, review of Firewing, p. 349.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2005, review of Skybreaker, p. 1278.
Kliatt, May, 2004, Hugh Flick, Jr., review of Firewing (audiobook), p. 48; July, 2005, Paula Rohrlick, review of Airborn, p. 30.
Quill & Quire, April, 1995, Fred Boer, review of A Bad Case of Ghosts, pp. 15, 41; May, 1995, review of A Bad Case of Robots, p. 48; April, 1997, John Wilson, review of Silverwing, p. 37; August, 1999, Sarah Ellis, review of Sunwing, p. 23.
Resource Links, December, 2001, Johal Jinder, review of An Incredible Case of Dinosaurs, p. 19; February, 2003, Judy Cottrell, review of A Creepy Case of Vampires, p. 13.
School Library Journal, May, 1993, Lucinda Lockwood, review of Dead Water Zone, p. 127; February, 2002, Louise L. Sherman, review of Silverwing (audiobook), p. 74; July, 2002, Louise L. Sherman, review of Sunwing (audiobook), p. 64; October, 2004, review of Airborn, p. S54; December, 2005, Sharon Rawlins, review of Skybreaker, p. 152.
Kenneth Oppel Home Page, http://www.kennethoppel.ca (December 15, 2005).
"Meet Kenneth Oppel" (booklet), Kids Can Press, 1994, unpaged.