Popular Canadian author Kenneth Oppal believes in reading as a double whammy: he’s making it fun and educational – and his books really are entertaining. Truly!
Oppal makes the complex concept of evolution understandable to young people, and also manages to turn science into a good story. The novel Darkwing (2007) is set millions of years in the past, as dinosaurs are dying out and new species are on the rise. A young chiropter named Dusk is afraid to show his friends and family what he can do — he can fly!
He is, quite possibly, the very first bat, the child of winged parents that can only glide on the wind, not flap.
Those who are different in this close-knit clan are shunned, so Dusk practices his wing flapping alone and afraid.
Scientists will sniff that evolutionary mutations occur over many generations, but Oppal mashes everything together over two. He’s
nonetheless allowing kids to get a grip on one of the most important human ideas about life and change. And in any case, we haven’t yet learned everything there is to know about evolution. Just last month, for example, two McGill University professors published a paper in Science that tackled how long it takes for real change to take hold: “Evolution is usually thought to be a very
slow process, something that happens over many generations, thanks to adaptive mutations. But environmental change due to things like climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, etc. is happening very fast. There are just two options for species of all kinds: either adapt to environmental change or become extinct,” began a story that reported on their work.
By forcing radical environmental change over a brief few months onto a very fast-growing yeast, the scientists discovered that change can occur in 50 to 100 generations. Given evolution’s long timelines, that’s darned fast.
But still not as fast as Dusk’s sudden ability to fly. His experiments lead to both horror and hope, as he slowly finds his own way in the big world. There’s a dollop of mysticism here, too, for those who also see a divine hand’s involvement.
In parallel is the tale of Carnassial, a wild cat with a taste for meat, who loves to kill other animals for food. His unnatural cravings force his peers to banish him, as they promise long-time forest friends they’ll continue to eat only grubs and moths, but leave mammals alive. (Evolution works both ways — toward the “good”, and toward the “bad”. And the concept of choice is a good one for kids to consider.)
Darkwing is filed in fiction, with an orange dot.The library has multiple Oppal novels; he has written many kids’ novels, and he’s been showered with awards.
Those looking for more magic and more swords should check out an older classic, about the young Alanna. In her world, girls must become healers, boys must learn the ways of war. But Alanna can ride horses and is the best shot with an arrow for miles around. Her clumsy brother, meanwhile, thinks the idea of going to a quiet convent and learning about herbs and spells is just the bee’s knees.
What to do? Without dad catching on, the boy and girl change clothes, and off the genderswitching Alanna goes to the castle to learn to be a knight. One can only hope she manages to pass as a boy long enough to prove herself worthy of the sword; if she’s caught, she’ll be sent back in disgrace.
Alanna: The First Adventure – Song Of The Lioness, by Tamora Pierce, was published in 1983. It’s a classic, and worth introducing to a new generation.
After devouring the four-book Alanna series, Tamora Pierce fans will want to read Wild Magic (1992). Set in the very same magical world, this series tells the story of young Daine, whose parents have been killed by bandits. She took revenge on the humans around her, and has been forced out of what’s left of her home by fearful farmers.
Daine is an animal whisperer who begins to discover strange and terrifying creatures about her that shouldn’t exist. Adopted by a sympathetic swordswoman, Daine ends up killing a monster, a giant spider with a human head and great teeth. It’s an immortal, from the Divine Realms, that has somehow popped into a different world.
The youngster is petrified — from the Divine Realms! She has murdered a god. But no: “Immortals and gods aren’t the same,” she’s told. “They just live in the same place.” Is Daine strong enough to stem the tide of cruel immortals which have no love for humans?
Wild Magic is book one of The Immortals series. Read these after Alanna — there are some spoilers here!
Both series are filed under Young Adult. All these books make for the beginnings of a great summer.
– Eleanor Brown, June 24, 2011