Monkey Business: Primate + Humans = Great Reading

As primates go, Orangutans are my favourite

I always find it fascinating when mini-trends or niches pop up. The more obscure or specific the trend, the better. For some reason, books about humans raising other primates (chimps, gorillas, etc) as humans seem to be the topic-du-jour, or perhaps more accurately, ‘du saison’. High concept books are always a good way to hook kids on books, and if these books are well executed, even better.

Ortega, by Maureen Fergus, was released this spring from Kids Can Press. It is the story of a gorilla who has been physically altered and then trained in order to allow it to speak. As the novel opens, Ortega is about to be integrated into a classroom of eleven year old children. What follows is a thought-provoking story of belonging, alienation, friendship, and ethics. This is an excellent book to spark classroom discussion for kids in grades 4-6. You can read a very comprehensive review of it here.

Due out later this summer, Canadian kid lit superstar Kenneth Oppel’s latest novel tackles similar ethical and scientific questions. Half Brother chronicles the ups and downs of a family who adopt a chimp weeks after birth and raise it as they would a human child. While Fergus’ novel presents the thoughts and feelings of it’s primate protagonist, Oppel’s story is very much about the experience of the human “half brother,” Ben. Oppel’s novel is for older readers and falls nicely into my favourite category, Poignant Coming of Age Story. I love Oppel’s style, which is well-paced and readable. His books are widely accessible, and he has the devoted fan base and critical acclaim to prove it. This one has a nostalgic flavour to it, due in part to the fact that it is set in the early 1970s, and it feels more personal than Oppel’s latest offerings.  

Neither of these books are breaking new ground here. Rather, they are making solid contributions to a small but rich canon of primate-based YA literature, including Peter Dickinson’s classic teen novel Eva, about a girl who awakens from a coma only to find she has been kept alive by having her brain implanted into the body of a chimpanzee. At the time of it’s publication in 1988, Eva was groundbreaking and helped to cement Peter Dickinson as a pioneer of what would become YA fiction. Today it remains a fascinating, gripping read that challenges readers’ expectations.  Baboon, by David Jones, is the story of a boy who survives a plane crash only to discover his mind has been transferred (rather inexplicably) into the body of a baboon. Spotty logic and a convenient ending aside, Jones’ fairly recent (Annick, 2007) novel is well-researched and compelling. At the very end of this primate/human spectrum is Genesis by Bernard Beckett, of which I will say very little. Just by including it in this list I have implied too much already, but this recent Tundra offering (2009) is well worth the read for older teens (12+).

So what is it about humans and other primates? More specifically, what is with Canadian children’s book publishers and primates? Whatever the answer may be, it certainly makes for engaging reading.

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