HALF BROTHER by Kenneth Oppel was a fairly enjoyable middle grade read. The novel takes place in the 1970s, and is about a boy, Ben, whose parents adopt a chimpanzee and will raise him as if he were human. Now, this isn’t any old random adoption. Ben’s parents are scientists and the experiment, the effects of cross-fostering, is all in the name of science, delving deeper into the debate of nature vs. nurture and exactly what separates humans from apes.
From the start, life is rocky for Ben. First of all, in order for his parents to adopt the chimp and conduct their research, the family must move all the way across Canada, settling on the West Coast. Ben receives a detention on the first day because a group of boys have decided to give the “new boy” a hard time. But also, it is clear to the reader that for his parents, research comes first. His parents did talk it over with him before they adopted the chimp, Zan, but once the experiment starts, Ben seems to be little more than an afterthought. His parents throw all of their attention into their work, forcing Ben to adjust to his new life mostly on his own.
Thankfully, he eventually meets some good friends, one, Jennifer (I think 90% of girls living in the 70s were named Jennifer,) has girlfriend potential. There is one word of caution. Even though this would fall squarely in the middle grade category, there is talk of Jennifer’s breasts in a bikini, maybe a judgment call for parents of readers on the lower end of the middle grade spectrum. There is also a scene where Ben is passed a cigarette and takes a puff. This is the 70s, after all. Like girls named Jennifer, I think having a scene with teenage smoking is almost compulsory. Although I was never older than five during the 70s, I think this book captures the spirit of the 70s nicely. I particularly like when Ben as narrators says, “It was 1973, and if we could build space stations (Skylab) and the world’s tallest structure (CN Tower,) we couldn’t we teach a chimp to talk?”
Another scene involving breasts is actually quite humorous. Ben walks in on his mother breastfeeding Zan. She talks about how the ordeal is actually painful. That has to be frightening for any son, but especially in that type of situation.
Overall, I think HALF BROTHER is a solid read for most 12-13 year olds. The vocabulary should not be overly tough for a reader in this age group. There are, in my opinion, some extended lull in the middle of the novel where it seems there isn’t much exciting that happens. But the humor, which this book is full of, helps break up the worst of the monotony. I think if there boys who are interested in science or animals will enjoy this novel in particular.