Half Brother

Half Brother

At age 13, Ben Tomlin's world is about to change. First, his parents are about to enroll him in a school where the kids with money go. Second, he's about to meet the very attractive Jennifer. Third, his parents are bringing home a new little brother for Ben....only he's an eight day old chimpanzee named Zan. Ben's parents are scientists and his father wants to study the chimpanzee and see if he can learn sign language to communicate with human beings. It's pretty interesting to watch the socialization that Zan undergoes while Ben is dealing with his own social issues with friends, grades and girls. Ben's father is determined to be the alpha male while Ben is strategizing how to be an alpha male in his new school. Gradually the relationship between Ben and Zan blossoms into really affection and brotherhood. Zan is making great progress with his sign language under the tutoring of students and family members but Ben's Dad does not get his big grant and the project is ill-fated. Where do you send your brother when his grant money runs out? 384 pages Ages 12 and up


In Kenneth Oppel’s YA novel Half-Brother, we meet Dr. Tomlin, a professor of behavioral science, who moves his family – a wife and thirteen-year-old son Ben – across Canada to his new university appointment. Dr. Tomlin has received funding for a ground-breaking study on language acquisition in chimpanzees. The Tomlin family acquires a chimpanzee for the project, which they begin to raise as a member of the family. The experiment revolves around the chimp’s ability to learn sign language. (This book is set in the early 70’s before Koko the gorilla became a sensation with her language acquisition skills.)

Because of the move, Ben must acclimate to a new school; handle his romantic feelings for the daughter of his father’s boss; define his relationship with Zan, the chimpanzee who becomes almost like his little brother; and relate to an emotionally distant father.

Just as Ben begins to find his emotional footing, Dr. Tomlin’s funding is cut off and the project is shut down. In addition, Zan, the chimpanzee, is becoming too powerful and is requiring too much time and effort for the family to keep without the help of the student research assistants. Is there a way to continue the experiment and keep Zan with the Tomlin family? If not, where will Zan go to live, which will be acceptable to Ben and his mother? Does Ben’s father not care about Zan and his well-being? What actions will Ben take to protect Zan?

This was an intriguing read. Readers will be interested in both Ben’s relationship with his father as well as the family’s relationship with Zan. While this is a story about a boy growing up and his relationships to his family and friends, Oppel has introduced an interesting “character” to the family dynamic. Is Zan half a brother? We treat our pets as part of our families, imparting anthropomorphic characteristics to them, assuming they relate to us on almost human levels. What happens when that animal is the closest primate to humans? How does that affect the relationship? What is possible in interspecies communication?


Recommended by Kate Stehman, Librarian

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