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Half Brother

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For thirteen years, Ben Tomlin was an only child. But all that changes when his mother brings home Zan — an eight-day-old chimpanzee. Ben’s father, a renowned behavioral scientist, has uprooted the family to pursue his latest research project: a high-profile experiment to determine whether chimpanzees can acquire advanced language skills. Ben’s parents tell him to treat Zan like a little brother. Ben reluctantly agrees. At least now he’s not the only one his father’s going to scrutinize.

It isn’t long before Ben is Zan’s favorite, and Ben starts to see Zan as more than just an experiment. His father disagrees. Soon Ben is forced to make a critical choice between what he is told to believe and what he knows to be true — between obeying his father or protecting his brother from an unimaginable fate.

Half Brother isn’t just a story about a boy and a chimp. It’s about the way families are made, the way humanity is judged, the way easy choices become hard ones, and how you can’t always do right by the people and animals you love. In the hands of master storyteller Kenneth Oppel, it’s a novel you won’t soon forget.

375 pages, Audio CD

First published January 1, 2010

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About the author

Kenneth Oppel

91 books2,569 followers
I was born in 1967 in Port Alberni, a mill town on Vancouver Island, British Columbia but spent the bulk of my childhood in Victoria, B.C. and on the opposite coast, in Halifax, Nova Scotia...At around twelve I decided I wanted to be a writer (this came after deciding I wanted to be a scientist, and then an architect). I started out writing sci-fi epics (my Star Wars phase) then went on to swords and sorcery tales (my Dungeons and Dragons phase) and then, during the summer holiday when I was fourteen, started on a humorous story about a boy addicted to video games (written, of course, during my video game phase). It turned out to be quite a long story, really a short novel, and I rewrote it the next summer. We had a family friend who knew Roald Dahl - one of my favourite authors - and this friend offered to show Dahl my story. I was paralysed with excitement. I never heard back from Roald Dahl directly, but he read my story, and liked it enough to pass on to his own literary agent. I got a letter from them, saying they wanted to take me on, and try to sell my story. And they did.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 931 reviews
Profile Image for Nicole.
1 review
July 26, 2011
I would read this book over Sara Gruen's "The Ape House" Any day of the week. Unlike Gruen's book, which claims to glean inspiration from notable great ape ASL research experiments, namely, Project Washoe, Project Nim, Koko the gorilla, and Kanzi, this book actually reflects many of the situations encountered while these projects were active. Many parallels are drawn between Zan and Washoe (Roger Fouts' "Next of Kin: My Conversations With Chimpanzees"), including the plan behind the cross-fostering,and utilizing guidance to teach ASL signs. There is also a change of housing to a chimp facility run by a researcher who makes use of collars, chains, cages, and cattle prods, and Peter, who plays the role of Dr. Fouts, Washoe's friend, guardian, and protector. There are also stark similarities to Project Nim: the fact that both Nim and Zan had a confusing, revolving-door system of caregivers and ASL teachers, and that his learning was not quantified with double-blind tests, which virtually invalidated everything he had been taught. It's a well-researched book, and reads more like an actual account of a legitimate research attempt, rather than just cliched, dramatic fiction (i.e. "The Ape House").

The only distracting issue I found was with Ben, the family's 13-year old son. His instinctual behavior is consistent with that of a 13-year old, as with his thought processes. However, his actions and reasonings are more indicative of an older teenager. He doesn't act like a 13-year old, nor does he reason like one. However, he thinks and behaves like one. It's a tricky differentiation to try to explain, but I'm sure if you read the book, you'll know what I mean. And I think he picked up on the "alpha-male" stuff too readily and easily. Some cross-fostering experiments did result in family's children assimilating chimpanzee behaviors, but this kid soaks them up too readily from only one well-behaved chimpanzee who only interacted with human. He'd need to spend quite a bit of time interacting among several chimpanzees before he began to pick up on the controlling pushiness of a dominant animal.

But those details are just splitting hairs. Overall, it's a good, easy read, and it quite entertaining if you've read any of the books on other ape cross-fostering experiments of the '60s and '70s.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,949 reviews1,295 followers
March 25, 2012
Our capacity for language is one of the attributes often cited as what makes humans so distinct from other animals. It’s a controversial distinction, because we’ve observed other species communicate in very interesting and effective ways: whales sing, dolphins whistle, birds do whatever it is they do to switch places while in formation. Parrots, of course, can be trained to mimic human speech! But there’s a difference between replicating instinctual sounds with fixed meanings and being able to learn language—to use it in innovative ways. When we look to other species who might possess this capability, we naturally turn to one of our closest relatives: chimpanzees.

There are many famous cases of attempts to teach primates signs or some other type of “language”: Koko, Washoe, Nim. The last has received recent publicity in the form of a documentary, Project Nim, and Washoe and Nim quite resemble Zan, the fictional cross-fostered chimp in Half Brother. Although it seems evident that Kenneth Oppel researched these projects, and others like them, for this book, it would have been interesting to hear how they inspired him in his own words. I guess afterwords or author’s notes aren’t all that common in young adult fiction (but maybe they should be).

I’m reading this book because my associate teacher in my second practicum is reading it to her Grade 8 class. I picked it up the week before my practicum, because it seemed like the thing to do. Oppel has been around since I was a kid—I’m pretty sure I read at least Silverwing—but I never quite became a “fan” of him. I skipped a huge chunk of YA fiction when I was that age as I jumped right up to more sophisticated stories—mysteries and then, in Grades 7 and 8, fantasy and science fiction. Now, as I prepare to teach those grades, I’m making a conscious effort to look out for interesting young adult fiction. Not only will it help me understand the mindset of my charges, but it will give me some practical recommendations if my students ever ask me what to read.

I ended up enjoying Half Brother a lot more than I expected—though why that’s so is beyond me, because I really like chimpanzees. If there’s one thing I love about David Brin’s Uplift series, it’s the possibility of letting chimps talk. Sure, they’re sexually rapacious and somewhat brutal … but they’re also so fascinating. Look into those deep eyes and see how much they perceive, how much they understand, how much they can empathize … I don’t know if words like sentient or sapient are accurate, but there’s something going on there. Of course, experiments trying to narrow that something down inevitable run into ethical issues.

Ethics plays a role in Half Brother, as does a slew of other motifs. This is a very rich novel in terms of potential for discussion with a class. One can discuss the ethics of animal testing: should we experiment on chimps? What about medical testing on animals? Cosmetics testing? Where do we draw the lines? And then we can go deeper: the protagonist, Ben, repeatedly comments that Zan isn’t human, but he is a person. So that raises the question of what personhood is, if not humanity. What does it mean to be a person? Fifty or sixty years ago, we were having those discussions about people who weren’t white. A century ago we were having them about people who weren’t male. Now we’re having them about people who aren’t necessarily our own species. The times, they change, but the conversations stay the same.

Then there’s Ben. The fact that he shares my name certainly helps. As the book opens he is about start Grade 8, and he finishes Grade 9 before the book’s end. For the most part, Oppel does an excellent job portraying Ben as a genuine 13-year-old boy. The vocabulary and syntax are accurate, and the ways Ben conceptualizes and explains events reflect the thinking of someone just on that cusp of adolescence. And he has a crush! Oppel sets up parallels between Ben’s interactions with Zan (Project Zan) and his attempts to get closer to Jennifer Godwin (Project Jennifer). It’s cute and adorable, and I’m sure that actual Grade 8s in my class find it icky and weird. (Occasionally, Oppel stretches the credibility of what he has Ben write—I doubt a 13-year-old boy would describe his crush as “luscious”.) I’m kind of interested to see what the girls think of how Ben is acting!

One curious note: this book seems to be set sometime before 1977. According to Wikipedia, this is when Canada switched its speed limit signs to kilometres per hour—early in the book Ben mentions a sign in miles per hour, which really jumped out at me. Aside from that incident and the frequent mention of records and record stores (at first I just thought these kids were all unspeakably retro), Oppel never makes it obvious that this book is set in the near past; there are few enough indications of the timeline. To be honest, I’m not sure why he chose this. I have some guesses. Perhaps he wanted to be closer to the era when the real chimp language experiments were running. Perhaps he needed an environment where a teenager wouldn’t have access to the Internet or to a cell phone. I’m not sure.

For a book with a such a simple and, yeah, predictable narrative, there’s quite a bit going on in terms of story. Ben gets to know Zan and starts thinking about the ethics of what his father is doing. This leads to issues with his dad, particularly when the project begins foundering and his dad makes a number of questionable decisions related to Zan’s wellbeing and future. Moreover, Ben has trouble getting the marks necessary to satisfy his father, who feels Ben merely needs to try harder. Oppel is careful to portray Ben as a kid who does try hard (mostly) but happens not to be so hot at academics. He struggles even more as he attempts to find his social position at a new, private school. All of these sub-plots are detailed and fine-tuned in such a way that they’re ripe for discussion, but they never subsume the main story about a boy and his chimpanzee.

I admit, I teared up at the ending. It’s somewhat contrived, but that doesn’t reduce its power. Oppel gives us a send-off carefully calibrated to be bittersweet, “happy” in some ways but also heartbreaking in others. Half Brother doesn’t take half measures in this regard: everything is either an emotional high or an emotional low, and while it can feel exhausting at times, I also think it keeps the book interesting. There’s a volatility to the story that probably works well to hold the attention of a younger audience. At the same time, as I describe above, Oppel does not condescend to his audience at all. The issues are real and important, and the language he uses is authentic. In a world were certain popular young adult fiction has protagonists who do nothing but swoon over competing mythological boyfriends and faint during all the interesting scenes (I name no names), I’m happy there are far superior alternatives.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Viktorija| Laisvalaikis su knyga.
110 reviews21 followers
August 11, 2023
Benui su šeima tenka kraustytis į naujus namus, o juose kelių dienų bėgyje pamini ne tik savo tryliktąjį gimtadienį..., bet šeimoje atsiranda ir naujas narys - visai mažylis šimpazė Zanas.

Ši knyga ne tik apie mokslininkų šeimą, apie mokslinį subjektą Zaną, bet ir apie paauglį ir jo pritapimą naujoje mokykloje, jo mintis ar susižavėjimo objektus. Taip, knyga turinti daug temų, bet pačiai įdomiausia buvo - kaip Benas priėmė naująjį šeimos narį, kaip jautėsi su juo. Taip pat, kūrinio dėka daugiau sužinojau apie šimpanzes, jų gyvenimą bei elgseną, vienų kitų pripažinimą. Viskas būtų gerai, tik taip lėtai skaitėsi kūrinys, kai kada būdavo nuobodu...ar net paviršutiniška. Taip, tai neįprastas knygos siužetas ir tikiu, kad savo gerbėjų turi/turės visai nemažai.

Vertinu: 3,5⭐️/ iš 5⭐️
10 reviews2 followers
March 9, 2018
So this book wasn't my favorite but I still really liked it. I liked how the mom surprised Ben with a chimp and at first he hated the chimp but as the book went on and as been got to know Zan (the chimp). Ben's mom and dad where scientists and they where doing an experiment about how chimps can learn sign language. Ben started getting closer to Zan and they hired one of the dads students who also came really close to Ben and Zan, but then the experiment fell through and they had to give up Zan to a man named Hellison. Hellison was going to sell zan to a lab so they could do experiments on him that could kill him so Ben and his mom stole him from Hellison, but they couldn't keep him, so Ben and Zan ran away, then Zan saved Ben's, they came home and gave him to a plce that Zan was really happy to be....
Profile Image for Kellee Moye.
2,533 reviews278 followers
August 3, 2015
Ben is introduced to Zan when he is 8 days old. Zan is his new baby brother. At first Ben is resistant to loving Zan, but that changes as he gets to know him. Ben loves Zan more than anything in the world. He would do anything for him. But others, including his father, don't understand why he has such an attachment to Zan. Yes, Zan is his brother, but Zan is also a chimp. A chimp who Ben's father is researching by conducting an experiment to see if chimps can learn language. To Ben, Zan has become a member of the family, but to others, he is just a specimen.

Ever since I started teaching and I was introduced to Willie B. through a short story and Sukari in Hurt Go Happy, I have gotten a mild obsession with apes- specifically chimps, gorillas and orangutans. I have often visited the Center for Great Apes where I learned even more about the life of chimps in entertainment, testing and living with humans.

Also, in the last couple of years, I have been introduced to Kenneth Oppel through his other books- Matt Cruse series, Victor Frankenstein and Silverwing- and I have adored every word of his that I have read/listened to.

So, when Half Brother came out, I knew it was a book I had to read. But then it got pushed aside again and again. For some reason, I just never got around to it. Until my best friend listened to it and insisted it be the next audiobook I read- and I am so glad she did! Half Brother is such a touching, suspenseful, well-done, amazing story. It pulls at your heart strings throughout and makes you think about all that it means to be human.

Kenneth Oppel obviously did a lot of research for this project. Half Brother is set in the 1970s at the peak of chimp research including research for the space program, medicine and language acquisition (Project Nim & Project Washoe) and also the beginning of protest against such experiments. This book teaches you the history of this time through a fictional experiment that is not much different than the real ones.

Half Brother is an emotion-filled, thought-provoking book which brings Zan and his family to life in 1973. This book is made to be a discussion as it introduces so many tough topics and is one that I cannot wait to discuss with students.

Reviewed posted at: http://www.teachmentortexts.com/2012/...
Profile Image for Lily Koh.
30 reviews
February 11, 2016
This book is about a boy named Ben who is a son of a scientist. His dad tries to do an experiment where chimps communicate with humans. He thinks of doing this by teaching a chimp ASL. Ben at first wasn't happy when his mom brought a chimp. But later on he started to love the chimp no matter what and think of him as a younger brother. But, there was a problem in between and they had to give the chimp away. He visited from time to time but noticed that the manager tried to sell the chimp. They stole the chimp away and went back to their home. Soon the manager asked for the chimp when he noticed the chimp was gone. Dad said he would pay for the chimp. They had to get a lot of money in only a few days so they started to do fundraising so that they could get the chimp back. Will they be able to get their chimp back? Read the book to find out.
Profile Image for Raina.
1,604 reviews128 followers
March 18, 2016
Great historical fiction with a local angle (Victoria is a great weekend destination for my area), and a cool scientific/animal hook.

Booktalked this as part of my 2016 middle school sweep and it was a runaway hit.
This was an example of a book where I rewrote my booktalk to great success.
My first version focused on the "double-edged sword"ness of the similarities between humans and chimpanzees. My second booktalk took a scene from the book of Zan being adorable and brought it to life. Complete with a bottle of liquid soap.

Pretty hefty, but still successful, this took me a few years to get to it, but I'm glad I did. Kenneth Oppel is one of those authors I have to resist reading... he's so good!
Profile Image for  Hugo  Lee.
18 reviews6 followers
October 20, 2019
Ben Tomlin, our teenage narrator, is an only child who is upset because his father moved the family from Toronto to take up a university teaching and research post in Victoria. Rapidly, Ben's upset turns to even more when his mother (her husband's research assistant) arrives at their new home with a week-old baby chimpanzee in her arms. With no more better care than the animal himself got, Ben is expected to let Zan be treated as a sibling and to participate in the experiment of raising him and teaching him to sign. Ben comes to love Zan and to view him as his little brother. Later, Ben try to be of a "dominant male" in order to survive at his new school, as well as cope with his controlling father. Meanwhile, Zan begins to bristle, bare teeth and lash out when thwarted or challenged. Oppel explores the limited options available, from the brutalities of research, to the comparative humaneness of chimpanzee refuge. Oppel, makes the point that the separation of Zan and other members of wild species cannot ever lead to anything good.
Profile Image for Fiona.
35 reviews
July 28, 2023
3 stars, it was okay, in the reading list, by a Canadian author so, not that bad
Profile Image for Jenn.
1,094 reviews4 followers
November 15, 2012
In the early 1970s, Ben’s parents are at the cutting edge of behavioral animal research. When Ben’s father, Dr. Richard Tomlin, gets an appointment at a university that supports his proposed project for teaching American Sign Language to a chimpanzee, he moves his wife Sarah and 14 year-old son across Canada from Toronto to Victoria. Ben is not too excited about this, nor is he thrilled when his mother brings home an 8-day-old chimpanzee that Ben sees as ugly. They name the chimp Zan (after Tarzan). While Richard will be using graduate students to teach Zan ASL, Sarah will be raising Zan as a human child as she writes a dissertation on cross-fostering. Ben is expected to help with Zan’s care and to see the chimpanzee as his brother. His reluctance soon wears off in the face of Zan’s undeniable charm.

At first the experiments seem to go well with Zan. He masters about 65 ASL words, but there is some debate as to whether he really comprehends the language or if he is just mimicking what he sees. Ben’s father tries harsh techniques while teaching Zan, including tethering him to a highchair for hours at a time. Tensions quickly arise between the father, who sees Zan as a test subject, and the son, who believes that it is his responsibility to protect his little brother. Ben struggles with the ethical and moral issues surrounding his father’s research and worries about what will happen to Zan if the project fails.

Kenneth Oppel’s novel is incredibly well researched. He draws from real-life experiments on simian intelligence, particularly the experiments with Washoe the chimpanzee. He accurately reflects the conflicting attitudes to animal research in the 1970s. Half-Brother will definitely start conversations among young adult readers about the ethics of using animals. Oppel’s novel shows that there is not a simple solution to the problems surrounding animal test subjects. He leaves the reader to form his or her own opinions.

Half-Brother also explores the themes of family, school life and dating. Ben’s tenuous relationship with Richard is fascinating and disheartening. Ben appears to be a constant disappointment to his father. Richard is cold and thoughtless to his family through much of the novel. I was just as interested in how these family dynamics would resolve as I was with what would happen to Zan. Ben’s adjustment to a new school and his desire for the daughter of his father’s boss are equally interesting and believable.

Excellent writing, complex characters, and thought-provoking themes will keep readers engaged from start to finish. Like many of Oppel’s novels, Half-Brother will appeal to a wide audience. I highly recommend this book to grades seven and up.
Profile Image for Brynn.
106 reviews
November 18, 2012
All right, let it be known that I am an enormous, gigantic, honking big fan of Kenneth Oppel. This Dark Endeavour and Airborn are my two favourite books, ever- books I read through fairly often for little to no reason, and books I occasionally sleep with like normal people might sleep with a teddy bear. Ridiculous perhaps? No, because it's true.
Anyways. To the point now. I didn't actually like this one. Usually Oppel's books are very engaging and interesting, but this one, I felt, never went anywhere. Sure, they captured the monkey at the end. I don't care! Our hero (I actually forgot his name- see how much I liked it?) is somewhat jerkish and annoying. He's not as fun as other Oppel protagonists, and seems doomed to be forgettable. Why? Well, I don't even know his name.
It started out decently enough and I could see some potential, but I never became very interested. Also towards the last third it started picking up bizarre similarities to the latest Planet of the Apes movie, but that's another story. I kept waiting for the main character to do something cool and funny and win me over. And frankly I never liked the monkey.
For my usual standards, Half Brother is fairly good. But I'm so used to Kenneth Oppel writing amazing books that I was left disappointed by how not-amazing it was. In Airborn there were large angry cats with wings- in this book, there's an annoying little chimpanzee and another annoying little chimpanzee whose name is (I just checked the back of the book) Ben.
Come on, Oppel. You've done better. This one really needed a monster fish living in a cave that eats people, or something. The one thing I did like was the time period- the 70s are interesting and that kept me more attentive than I would've been.
Looking forward to the next Frankenstein book, which I hope has no monkeys. No monkeys, please. Thanks.
Profile Image for Dovilė Tik.
25 reviews1 follower
August 13, 2020
"Kenneth Oppel - Pusiau brolis "
" Kaltė - pati siaubingiausia liga, kada nors kankinusi žmogų. "
Tryliktasis gimtadienis Benui buvo ne toks smagus, kokio tikėjosi. Deja, kaip tik tuo metu jie kartu su šeima persikraustė į kitą miestą, Benas jau atsisveikino su savo visais draugais ir bendraklasiais, o čia teks pažindintis su visais iš naujo ir pratintis prie naujos mokyklos.Tačiau tai dar ne viskas - Beno tėvai yra mokslininkai, ir nuo šiol jie kartu augins šimpanzę Zaną ir atliks ekspermentą - bandys Zaną išmokyti bendrauti gestų kalba. Šeimos laukia daug įdomių patirčių, nusivilimų bei netikėtų nuotykių.
2,447 reviews
December 3, 2021
Ben is excited when his mom and dad bring a baby chimpanzee into their family with the intent to teach him to communicate with humans via sign language.

I've read a bunch of books about primate language studies (non-fiction and fiction) and this is a solid young adult version. Ben is a believable, likeable teen who just wants to fit in at a new school and maybe find a girlfriend. He looks on Zan (the chimp) as his younger brother so he's devastated when the project looks like it may have to end. Ben, though young, is a truly good person who even manages to teach his dad (the psychologist/animal researcher) a bit of a lesson.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,121 reviews111 followers
March 10, 2011
Drawing liberally on real-life research into simian intelligence and language acquisition, this fictionalized take on Washoe the chimpanzee's life may be targeted at adolescent readers, perhaps, but it's a quick and enjoyable read for anyone who, say, likes Robert Sawyer but wants something lighter. I finished it in a single day, though it took me awhile longer to decide what to say about it.

The book as it stands has at least one significant flaw: I searched in vain for any foreword, afterword, bibliographic reference or even dust jacket footnote acknowledging the source for so much of the narrative, or pointing interested readers to further information. Kenneth Oppel himself is quite open about the origins of this story, so I think it must just have been a missed opportunity on Scholastic Press's part (at least for this edition; other editions may have corrected this issue). Any way you look at it, though, it's a real shame that Half Brother could not give its audience more of a clue about its story's historical basis.

Ben Tomlin is our 13-year-old narrator for Half Brother. Ben's father Richard is a Canadian behavioral psychologist, an aloof and intensely dedicated scientist (possibly fairly far along on the spectrum of autistic behavior himself), who takes his family from Toronto to Victoria, British Columbia, in order to pursue grant money for his grand project: adopting a chimpanzee—here called Zan—and raising it in a human environment, to see whether it can learn American Sign Language (ASL).

Ben's a good choice for a viewpoint character, even if this book were not targeted specifically to kids his age. His inexperience explains, for example, why the book starts out with no hint of reflection about the ethics of proving simian intelligence by abducting a baby chimp from its mother to raise it with a human family.

Ethical considerations definitely come in later, though, as Zan's integration into the Tomlin family proceeds and the project attracts various kinds of media attention. Ben falls for the little guy pretty quickly, and soon comes to consider him as a full-fledged family member. His mother, a researcher in her own right, also finds Zan easy to treat in motherly ways. Dr. Richard Tomlin, though, never seems to see Zan as anything but an experimental subject. This conflict provides much of the tension, especially when a couple of setbacks lead to the project being cancelled altogether. How the Tomlins deal with the loss of Zan to a rather more old-fashioned animal center in Nevada drives the rest of the novel.

I first thought that Half Brother had a whiff of the "trunk novel" about it... Ben has phonograph records and a photographic darkroom, but no cellphone and no computer, for example, and his mother is a 34-year-old who dresses in bell bottoms and Native American jewelry. That's just because the novel is set explicitly in 1973, though, as becomes clear later on. As Oppel mentions in the above-linked talk about the book, he didn't start writing it until after Washoe's death in 2007.

The bottom line on this one: it's probably not going to have the impact that Peter Singer's Animal Liberation did back in 1975, but then it's not intended for the same audience. I think Half Brother is a good conversation-starter about animal research for younger readers—as long as you keep some supplemental material on-hand to flesh it out.
12 reviews
October 1, 2020
Nuostabi knyga apie žmogaus ir šimpanzės begalinę draugystę.
Profile Image for KoenK F1.
8 reviews1 follower
March 27, 2021
Finally! A animal who is also a human. I almost cried multiple times in this book. I love it how Ben and Zan have developed such a close bond. How a quiet teen and a wild toddler can become best friends.

There’s also the social, school drama part of the story. How a quiet teen can get into so much drama and social trouble. I would expect me to get into so much social difficulties, since I have a lot of friends and talk a lot. This kid got into more drama than anyone would’ve thought: desperate to impress a crush, dealing with popularity, having TWO girlfriends, and fighting with one of them. All of this, added to the complicated chimp project gives you massive headaches.

At least he got some help from the bearded-one. There’s always that cool, chill side character. Peter’s the man. I love how they became Zan’s two big brothers. Giving up their free time to spend time with him.

Kenneth Oppel also made Zan’s progress in sign language very fast. The frustration just flew by. He made their communication very smooth and easy. Just try communicating with my sister while she’s angry.

Sometimes, I want to be Ben. Just seeing him stare at the problems and not act makes me freak out. Or maybe I’m just mad at some of the character and want to let it out. We have completely opposite personalities, so I wonder what it would be like in some situations where he was me?

This joyful yet sad story was perfect for me. It’s about teenage life, animals, and also being in situations where you can’t do anything. Or I’m just too nosey. But I would probably be yelling at my parents in certain scenes if I was Ben.

This novel really melted my heart, seeing a kid/chimp grow in a difficult family, but is also the most homey and warm. I wish there where more stories like this. Unless it’s something cruel that happened to the animal and it was based on a true story. Not that I don’t want to ready about it, heck yeah I would, but just that I don’t wasn’t the story to be true. However, humans are the most advanced and the most savage animals on the planet.
Profile Image for P.M..
1,271 reviews
July 24, 2012
I do not like chimpanzees or monkeys of any stripe. I always skipped that part of a zoo when visiting. Having said that, I loved this book about 13 - 15 year old Ben Tomlin whose parents have brought an infant chimp, Zan, into the family to study cross-fostering and language acquisition. Ben is a typical self-absorbed teenager at the beginning of the book, a typical boy who resents his parents making him move from Toronto to British Columbia. He even resents the chimp who will become their sole focus for as long as the study lasts. Soon, without any effort on his part, Zan infiltrates Ben's heart and becomes his beloved little brother. When a linguistic expert says that Zan is not really learning language despite his command of 65 ASL words, Dad's university sells him to Dr. Helson, who runs a chimp ranch. Ben is devastated because he is positive that Zan is using language. The last thing he said to Ben was "Open food box" because he was hungry. No one has taught him the word for refrigerator so Zan invented his own word. This breakthrough is ignored and Zan is sold. Dr. Helson is very strict with his chimps; Zan is not allowed to have his favorite blanket or his G.I. Joe toy. Ben realizes that it is up to him to save Zan no matter what it takes. Ben was such a wonderful character; he went from typical narcissistic teen to altruistic teen who realizes that if you love someone you must set them free. Zan was also a wonderful character with a real sense of humor and a real devotion to Ben. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore what makes a person and what makes a family.
Profile Image for Afton Nelson.
931 reviews22 followers
March 10, 2011
I chose to read this book because I've enjoyed other books by Kenneth Oppel. By coincidence, I'd just heard the NPR "This American Life" podcast about Dr. and Mrs. Temrelin who "adopted" Lucy, a chimpanzee, and raised her as their own daughter--a story which did not have a happy ending. I also had recently listened to the NPR "Stuff You Should Know" podcast about How Face Transplants work and the several incidents of chimps raised in homes who suddenly turn violent and--well, the title of the podcast was "How Face Transplants work," so just I'll leave it at that.

My point is, I went into this story with a sense of foreboding and dread. I didn't see how the story could end well. And in a way, the story didn't end well. But it ended as happily as it could have. And I think the point was clearly made that the best place for wild animals is in their own habitat.

This book was not just about how animals are affected by human's quest for knowledge. It was about the relationship that developed between the chimp Zan and his half brother Ben. It was about Ben's relationship with his dad and with his mother. It was about how to treat people as well as animals. And while the story definitely painted animal testing in a negative light, it didn't seem sanctimonious.
Profile Image for Melody.
2,644 reviews270 followers
February 20, 2011
I had this book out from the library for months before I could bring myself to crack it open. It seemed so fraught with peril, and I was afraid of it.

It's the story of a young man, the son of scientists, who gets inextricably involved with his parents' experiment around teaching a baby chimp ASL while raising him as a human, or as near enough to a human as to make no difference. It's also the story of a young man falling in love for the first time, and adjusting to school, and dealing with a welter of confusing feelings.

Solidly written, emotionally affecting, and not terribly wrenching. There's no happy ending coming, one can see this from the beginning. The journey is very worth taking, and I think this is a wonderful book for young adults who may not have thought through animals in labs and what can and does happen to them sometimes.

Set at a fairly comfortable (and believable) remove in the early 70s, it's a gripping, well-plotted tale. Some of the characters are pretty black and white, but overall it's nicely done.
Profile Image for Brian.
1,693 reviews42 followers
May 16, 2011
In Oppel's latest novel, a boy is raised by two parents who are scientists. They decide to adopt a baby chimp (kidnap) and teach it to speak English. But his father isnt' as nice as he seems.. Is he using the chimp for more sinister purposes? Can the main character accept the chimp as a real member of his family? This book has some teen drama sprinkled into the fold. It was a fairly quick, but emotional read and I really enjoyed the interactions with the chimp, Zan.
125 reviews38 followers
May 8, 2013
Cormac's review (aged 10)

This book is about a family who adopt a baby chimp as part of an experiment to see whether he can be taught to communicate using sign language. The mother and father are both scientists and their son, Ben, is 13 when Zan comes to live with them. This is why the book is called Half Brother, because Ben has to accept this animal not as a pet, but as a brother. At first Ben has a hard time with this but eventually he comes to his senses and realises that Zan means more to him than a science experiment.

However his Dad ends up shutting down the project - he says it's because Zan is getting too strong and dangerous but Ben knows it's because he's lost faith in the project and doesn't believe Zan is learning language or ever will. So the whole book is about one boy's fight to save his little chimp brother.

Along the way he meets many characters, some who play a key part in Zan's life, such as the Godwin family and Tim Borden and especially Peter, a student who works with Zan and becomes his best friend. This book made me feel sad sometimes, and also excited - there were some intense bits in there. I also learnt about biomedical labs and how cruel they are to animals. It's funny, sad and tragic all at the same time.

Mum's 2 cents.

Cormac laid out the plot so well there should be little for me to add. WRONG! There is in fact so much more to be said about Half Brother - that I'm actually going to need to resort to bullet points:

- First up, most importantly, it's superbly well written. I don't know exactly what it is that distinguishes YA fiction from adult fiction, because at no point did I feel that this book was beneath my reading level, yet nor did it seem to be above Cormac's either. It was simply easy and welcoming to read, like settling into a (faux, of course) fur-covered beanbag.

- The story is gripping. It achieves the perfect balance of plot/pace to studied introspection, and the ethical issues, while paramount, somehow never dominate. In fact, I happen to know that a person can read this book and not become overly bogged down by the ethical dilemmas it throws up - Cormac being a case in point. Although we discussed the thorny issues as they cropped up, I don't think Cormac, left to his own devices, would have beaten himself up about them. The dilemmas range from what does it mean to be human? to should scientists maintain emotional distance from their subjects? to is animal testing is ever justified, even if it helps to save human lives?. Although these issues are present all the way through the book, Oppel somehow escapes the tendency to slip into overt preaching - the story speaks for itself and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

- The characters are authentic. From the long-haired hippy Peter, Zan's handler, to Ben's Mum and Dad, to the prissy private school kids and eager-to-please university students. They are developed primarily through dialogue, which helps keeps the narrator's voice in the background and adds to their authenticity. This is particularly the case for Ben's parents, who carry a lot of baggage in their relationship (that is to say, as much as anyone else!) leaving Ben to sift through the left-overs and make sense of his own place in the family. And all throughout there are alliances and trade-offs, politics, pride and finances at stake, ensuring the reader is well invested in Zan's future by the final few pages.

- Authenticity of the period. This book is like the literary equivalent of Mad Men. Set in the 1970s, kids ride bikes and shoot BB guns, they're "necking" at discos, listening to Abba and washing dishes by hand, they consider colour tv's and digital clocks the height of technology, and experiments involving chimps are all the rage. The attention to detail is subtle but fantastic.

- The surprises. And there are a few - one or two outrageous scenes in particular left us laughing/gawping in a mixture of horror/hilarity. These scenes passed as briefly as they appeared with no explanation or comment, and I loved that. It reminded us, just as any good fiction should, that anything can happen.

- It made me cry - and in case you didn't know, it's hard to read out loud through tears.

I was worried Zan was getting upset, so I talked to him as I groomed him. I started telling him the story of his day, and flying on an aeroplane, but he wouldn't remember any of that, and anyway, it was such a sad story I couldn't keep going.

But if I had to dispense with all the bullet points, what would I say about Half Brother? I'd say it's going to be a hard act to follow.

* Should also note that this book is likely based on true events (must look into it, no info is given in the book) - a movie I saw last year, Project Nim follows a very similar trajectory to that of Project Zan. Interestingly, I wanted to take the kids to see that film but it was rated R15 which I couldn't quite understand, being as it was a documentary. It wasn't until afterwards that I appreciated why... Boy, the 70s were a weird time.... http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1814836/
Profile Image for Larry Verstraete.
Author 22 books22 followers
December 30, 2022
Although the story starts off slowly, I fell into it after a few chapters and ended up sprinting through pages to find out how it would end. The book explores the relationship between animals and humans, and in particular the dominance of one over the other, and the ethical dilemmas this produces for people who care about animal rights. Many themes run through the book: family, friendship, trust, fairness, justice etc. The characters are well drawn. Ben, 14 years old, is a typical teenager in many ways, fraught with questions about himself and his relationship to his peers as he struggles to find his footing as he approaches adulthood. Middle years readers will easily identify with him and his cause. The book is a bit dated (references to ABBA, for example) but still the storyline is solid and intriguing enough to keep readers engaged and worried for both Ben and Zan, the chimp Ben calls his half-brother.
18 reviews1 follower
April 9, 2022
Very touching book about the importance of connections and relationships. And it was school read so yay!!
14 reviews
July 4, 2020
Fascinating story about family, commitment and trust. Absolutely heartbreaking though. Left me feeling empty and sad.
Profile Image for Sarah.
3,343 reviews1,017 followers
January 10, 2011
Ben's parents are both scientists but he is shocked when they announce that they are adopting a chimpanzee so they can try to teach it sign language. He isn't keen on the idea and really doesn't want to have to move across the country to be nearer the university that is funding the experiment either. When Zan arrives Ben is told to think of him as a younger brother, Zan is to be raised as a human child and the whole family must be involved along with several students from the university. But what will happen to Zan if funding for the experiment runs out?

I have to confess that I was nervous about reading Half Brother, the idea of raising a chimp in a human family didn't sit right with me and I wasn't sure if this was a story I would enjoy. There were a couple of things at the beginning of the book that made me really uncomfortable and I almost didn't continue reading but I have to say I'm glad I pushed through and gave the story a chance. Both Ben and Zan stole my heart and this ended up being an incredibly emotional read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

When Ben first finds out that his parents will be bringing home a chimp and raising him as Ben's brother he isn't happy. He doesn't like the idea of having to move to another part of the country and is worried about what his new classmates will think of him and his family. When Zan first arrives he is determined to have as little to do with him as possible but it doesn't take long before Zan's big brown eyes and sweet nature start to grow on him. He soon falls in love with his new brother and becomes very protective of him. I loved watching the relationship develop between the two of them and found it sweet watching them together. Watching Zan's progress as he grows older and starts learning sign language is fascinating, especially when you find out that the story is based on two real experiments with chimps that were carried out in the 70's. Some of the things you will learn about animal experiments that have been held in the name of science are truly horrific. I know humans are capable of some despicable acts but there is something that makes it even worse when it is against defenseless animals and done supposedly for the greater good of mankind.

Ben's father insisted on treating Zan like a member of the family and raising him so he thinks of himself as human but as a scientist he has always managed to keep emotions out of the equation. This isn't so easy for Ben to do so when the experiment starts getting bad press and the money starts to run out Ben is worried about what will happen to Zan in the future. This was where the story became completely heartbreaking. It's hard to go into much detail without giving spoilers though so you'll have to read the book to find out what happens and how things turn out for both Zan and Ben.

Alongside Zan's story we also get to watch as Ben starts his new school and tries to fit in and make friends, this part is very much a coming of age story. I found it interesting to see that as much as Zan was learning to become human Ben was picking up qualities that chimpanzees have in the wild as he tried to become the alpha male at school. I did find 'Project Jennifer' - where Ben approaches trying to win Jennifer's heart as some kind of experiment - was a little odd but I think considering his background this was probably quite a natural way for Ben to look at things.

Half Brother is a book that raises all kinds of issues regarding testing on animals and animal cruelty but it never forces opinions down your throat, instead it gives you all sides of the story and allows you to make up your own mind. It will also make you think about love, family and the rights of those who aren't able to stand up for themselves. A thought provoking and powerful read that will take you through all kinds of emotions Half Brother is a book I'd thoroughly recommend, I guarantee you will fall in love with Zan. This is the first book I've read by Kenneth Oppel but it definitely won't be the last.
Profile Image for Nikki in Niagara.
3,938 reviews126 followers
October 2, 2010
Reason for Reading: Oppel is my favourite YA author and I read every new book he publishes.

This book is something completely different from Oppel's usual fare and I must admit I was a little leery going in, hoping this wasn't going to end up being a platform for animal rights. I need not have worried; Oppel is an accomplished writer and a reader can be confident that he is going to produce a well-crafted novel that will keep one glued to one's seat.

I read this book in one sitting, I was that taken with it. It's a far cry from my usual reading fare as well and I found it fascinating. Ben's father is a scientist and his mother also, though she is still writing her PhD dissertation. The father has a Project where he is to bring a baby chimp into the household and along with a staff of his students raise the chimp as a human, all the while seeing if they can teach the chimp, Zan, to learn American Sign Language and fully communicate with them. At first Ben's not so crazy about Zan, after all they had to move from Toronto to B.C. for his father to work at this new University, but it doesn't take long until Ben and Zan are bosom buddies and more than that, brothers in a real sense.

But the Project isn't proceeding fast enough, they are denied the big grant they expected, the University wants more results and soon Ben is fighting for Zan's place in their family and he must risk it all to save Zan from a future worse than death.

An incredibly intriguing story. The characters themselves add such tension to the story, the family dynamics shape the conflicts. The dad is stoically scientific, even towards his own son, emotions are not one of his good points, though we pick up clues as to what shaped this man. The mother, though also scientific, is naturally maternal, has a great relationship with her son, and her maternalism flows over to baby Zan. Ben, is thirteen when the story starts and has a whole other side story going on about school, friends and girls (especially). This is also a coming-of-age story for him and there is one particularly interesting thing about his and Zan's development. Zan obviously becomes humanized, mimics the humans and considers himself human but we also see in some ways that Zan's natural chimp behaviour is brushing off on Ben, who has been reading a lot about chimps since Zan's arrival. While Ben plays Alpha-male at school to win friends, popularity and girls, it isn't until an instant when he becomes furiously angry with his father that we see Ben turn chimp.

This story is full of humorous escapades created by Zan and others' reactions to him. But this is also a serious story that deals with the ethical treatment of animals. Right from the beginning of the book there are a couple of hints that the story is not taking place in the here and now and eventually we learn that Zan's story is taking place some 30 years in the past. This opens up a world of science that did not have the same ethics as we do today when it comes to using animals in experiments. Oppel does not go all "activist" on us but instead introduces the reader to various practices going on at the time and the scientific reasoning behind the ethics of such experimentation. Then he shows the various types and forms of protest to this treatment and with that goes further to say it was not all in the name of science (make-up testing for example).

A well-written, gripping, thought-provoking story, possibly Oppel's greatest book to date. This story may well have some of it's targeted readers looking into animal related careers where they will have a voice in ensuring the ongoing ethical treatment of animals. Myself, after reading this, I feel like sitting down and watching the movie "Gorillas in the Mist" again.
March 30, 2013
After his parents moved him across the country, Ben has to get used to a new school, make new friends, and become a big brother to the newest addition to the Tomlin-- a baby chimp. Ben is not at all excited about his parents latest research project, which is teach language to this chimp. The moment his mom brought the baby home, he wanted absolutely nothing to with him because he had bigger problems to worry about--getting into an elite prep school, making new friends, and dating the cutest girl he has ever met. As time goes by, Ben's reluctance to be with the chimp wanes and when he names the baby, Zan (after Tarzan), all of his hesitation and heart melts. Ben has become to center of Zan's world and the closer they get, the more the Chimp progresses. In fact, the experiment goes so well that he and his family end up in People Magazine and the become the town celebrities. Life couldn't get any better for Ben because he befriends the children of the University Dean and his social profile is solid and he is good friends with the TA that is hired to help with Zan's education. However, things take a turn for the worse when the University, and critics, start questioning the validity of the experiment that leads to a treacherous journey for both Zan and Ben.

Half Brother is an incredibly compelling story about a relationship between an animal and human. At the time of this story, the works of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey were blossoming as well as the issue of animal testing in the 1970's. Moreover, this story is also about the pursuit of scientific knowledge and what its limitations are. Amidst this historic significance, is a story about a teenager who is just trying to find his place in the world. Despite being uprooted from his home, Ben has to start all over again and that is not easy. Another issue is having is living up to his father's expectations, which lands him in a school that is way above his abilities. The thing is that Ben is a normal teen who wants to live a normal life and have a normal family. Unfortunately, Ben is the child of two brilliant scientists who are embarking on a scientific feat, which is teach language to a primate. Although chimps are able to grasp the American Sign Language (thanks to the work of Allen and Beatrix Gardner), the Tomlin's want to take this concept farther which requires them to integrate this baby into human life. I can completely understand Ben's hesitance because it's not normal to integrate a wild animal into human family. Not only is it confusing for the baby, it's difficult for the family especially when the animal tendencies come out (i.e., Zan biting off another TA's finger and fits). Although the goal of this experiment is noble (to bridge the gap between humans and primates) it is also cruel (Zan's learning chair). Ben cannot help fall in love with Zan because Zan is a part of him, which makes it hard when the University threatens to close down the project. Moreover, the more he learns about the controversy of animal testing, Ben panics and does something so incredibly dumb, but admirable, readers cannot help but cheer him on. This is a beautiful story between to beings who have nothing but unconditional love and trust between each other.
Profile Image for Peacegal.
10.2k reviews94 followers
May 23, 2017
Half Brother is another winner for the YA shelf. Set in the early 1970s, the book explores what happens when a scientist brings home a baby chimpanzee as part of a groundbreaking linguistics experiment. The idea is, in effect, to make the chimp believe he is human and communicate with people using American Sign Language. But while the scientist sees Zan the chimp as mainly a test subject, his 13-year-old son, Ben, begins to look at Zan as a friend and brother. When the experiment concludes, the question of what will happen to Zan makes for the novel’s most gripping and emotional moments.

Oppel shines when he wrestles with the tough questions about animal ethics that invariably arise from the situation. We see questioning of what it means to be a person and notion of “person” as human construct. Such deep thoughts are rare in adult novels, let alone YA. And while the philosophy goes above and beyond most in the “animal in peril” genre, Oppel’s characters still don’t go all the way in extending their circle of concern. Zan’s human friends continue to eat meat, for example, even while plotting ways to save the chimp’s life. In this sense Brother hearkens back to Charlotte’s Web and other stories that are more about saving one special animal---or one special species—than all animals in general.

Another strong point is Oppel’s weaving of time and place—the atmosphere of the early ‘70s. However, there are some anachronisms which will be recognizable to animal advocate readers. First off, there is a character who is repeatedly referred to as an “animal rights activist.” Was that a common term in the 1970s? (Perhaps some older activists can shed some light on this for me.) There is discussion of “The Thurston Foundation,” a biomedical lab that is infamous for its inhumane treatment of chimps. This is an obvious reference to the Coulston Foundation, which was eventually shut down by the USDA for its negligence. Problem is, the Coulston Foundation didn’t open until 1993. Then there is also a facility in the book based on Florida’s Save the Chimps, which unfortunately didn’t come into existence until 1997.

If Brother receives the wide attention it should, I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t end up on the American Library Association’s list of challenged books at some point. Ben’s teenage infatuation drives the subplot, and there is some mild suggestiveness, as well as a smattering of curse words. It’s a shame this will no doubt drive some to attack the novel.

Overall, Oppel has presented us with a wonderful novel that raises some important questions, as well as a fine resource for humane education recommendations.
26 reviews5 followers
February 16, 2014

That kind of describes this book. For the premise of teaching a chimp to talk...it doesn't really do that. It focuses more on Ben hating his father, his father being a jerk, animal welfare, and Ben trying to get a girl to like him.

It's kind of boring.

I have three main problems besides that as well.

1. Why is it called Half Brother?
I guess it comes from when Ben says Zan is "half brother, half stranger", but he mentions this a whooping 1 time and it really doesn't symbolize anything. Half brother means a brother who is related by only 1 parent, and this makes the title very confusing. Maybe if he also mentioned he was more like a half brother since his father never acted like a father to Zan, but it isn't brought up.

It would be like calling your book about space aliens "Martins" even though they have nothing to do with Mars but the main character says they look like Martins from a cartoon once and it is never mentioned again.

2. How come Ben associates Zan as his little brother so much?
I mean, it took him a month, but he always calls him his brother even though he tends to think of him as an animal. I mean, he refuses to admit he thinks of him as a pet more than a brother and constantly says he is his brother, but he acts like he is an animal. It is very strange and hard to explain. :(

3. What is up with the dream sequence at the end? (SPOILERS)
After Ben leaves Zan, he says, "I hoped he would forget he was ever human" or something close. That's where it should have ended. But no, instead we are treated to a dream sequence where Ben talks to Zan. I guess it is for emotional closure, but when Ben signs that he loves Zan and there is a pause, like maybe Zan will be mad they ruined his life, I couldn't help but think, come on! It is a dream, so we know either way it doesn't matter. It seems more for Ben's benefit than ours, and I think it would have been better for him to ask his mom, "Do you think he hates us?" or something than this. Because it is a dream, too, it really doesn't give Ben emotional closure because he knows it is fake and doesn't represent the real Zan.

It really confuses me.


In all, it isn't a bad book, but there are some rather odd things about it. It is worth a read if you aren't too picky, though.

NOTE: I read this only a few days ago, but I might have missed something. I wouldn't put it past me. Sorry if I did.
Profile Image for Canadian Children's Book Centre.
324 reviews86 followers
February 7, 2012
Reviewed by Lisa Doucet

When 13-year-old Ben and his scientist parents leave their home in Toronto to move to Victoria, British Columbia for his father’s important research project, Ben resigns himself to starting at a new school and making new friends. Typically, his father doesn’t seem interested in how Ben feels about any of this, all he can think about is his latest experiment in which he will study the possibility of teaching a chimpanzee sign language. As if the move isn’t enough to deal with, Ben is now also faced with the challenge of welcoming a baby chimp into their home and family and treating it like a baby brother.

This proves to be less of a hardship than he originally thought, and soon Ben is deeply attached to Zan. He starts to have serious misgivings, however, as he becomes increasingly conscious of his father’s feelings about the little chimp: that he is simply an experiment and nothing more. When it looks like the project will be reaching an unexpected and early end, Ben knows that he will have to protect Zan. The question becomes “how?”

In this departure from his other award-winning novels, Kenneth Oppel brings readers a provocative tale of one boy’s determination to do what he knows is right. Ben is a typical teen boy who struggles to make a name for himself in his new school and to capture the heart of beautiful Jennifer Godwin. He also alternates between wanting to please his father and wanting to turn his back on him forever. This is a poignant and powerful story that challenges readers to reflect on the meaning of family and on our relationship with, and responsibility towards, the creatures with whom we share the earth. It is a complex family drama, and a profoundly sweet coming-of-age story. But most of all, it is a heartwarming, bittersweet story of the deep and lasting bond between a boy and his little brother.

Canadian Children's Book News (Fall 2010, Vol. 33, No. 4)
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