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The Ottawa Citizen 2004
Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The best-selling author of a novel about bats won a Governor General's Award when he switched his emphasis to humans, writes Paul Gessell.

Mega-selling author Kenneth Oppel switched his attention from bats to humans, found himself far more inspired and produced a book that has just won the Governor General's Literary Award for Children.

Oppel received the $15,000 prize yesterday at Rideau Hall for Airborn, a tale about a cabin boy on a luxury airship plying the skies of an "alternate Earth," battling pirates and coping with the stirrings of adolescence.

Airborn was a huge shift for the Toronto author best known as the creator of the Silverwing series about a unique species of bats. The books have sold more than a million copies worldwide and turned the 37-year-old Oppel into the closest thing in Canada to Britain's J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. Oppel was Rowling's opening act during her Toronto Skydome appearance in 2000 before tens of thousands of children.

The judges in this year's literary awards described Airborn as "masterfully crafted" and a "feat of powerful imagination." "From cover to cover," the judges continued, "the reader is in the hands of a superb writer."

Speaking to journalists, Oppel confessed that despite his success with the world of "small furry little mammals," he found humans far more interesting because they have emotions, wear clothes and eat a wider range of food. Humans simply offered "the broadest palette" for a writer.

Oppel said Airborn is his favourite book, and not just because it won the GG Award. "I just found it was the most exuberant writing I've done."

Oppel actually had two books in the running for the annual GG Awards. The other was Peg and the Yeti, whose artwork by Barbara Reid was nominated for best illustration of a children's book. Reid lost out to Stephane Jorish of Montreal for his illustrations in a new version of Lewis Carroll's classic story, Jabberwocky. It was Jorish's third Governor General's Award.

In the French-language competition, Nicole Leroux of Montreal won in the text category for L'Hiver de Leo Polatouche and Janice Nadeau, also of Montreal, won in the illustration category for Nul Poisson ou aller.

The awards were presented before an audience of about 200 Ottawa-area schoolchildren sitting attentively in the ballroom of the Governor General's residence.

A father of two, Oppel clearly demonstrated he knows how to communicate with children as he explained how writing can at times be so difficult, so "dreadful" that he would rather be clipping his toenails. The chandeliers rattled from the children's laughter at that remark.

Oppel wrote his first published book at age 14 while a high school student in Victoria. It was called Colin's Fantastic Video Adventure. He has been writing ever since. He is also a splendid performer at public readings, where many an adoring adult fan has been known to slip in a side door to catch the presentation. Like Rowling, Oppel's books appeal to many adults as well as children.

Oppel says he is not worried that children's books are about to disappear beneath an avalanche of movies, videos, the Internet and other media. In fact, the author is proof of that. His favourite childhood memory is watching the movie Star Wars.

Oppel's competition in the GG this year included Martine Leavitt (Heck Superhero), Sharon E. McKay (Esther), Judd Palmer (The Wolf King) and Ange Zhang (Red Land, Yellow River: A Story from the Cultural Revolution).

The Governor General's Award winners in the fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama and translation categories will be announced today.

Paul Gessell
(c) The Ottawa Citizen 2004