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Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

May 9, 2012

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Young Adult book arena can be difficult to navigate. As my education about what is marketed as Young Adult Sci Fi, Fantasy, and  Dystopian/Apocalyptic continues, I decided to review one of the milder books I came across. Airborn has won the Governor General’s Award for children’s literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon award, so it is sure to be found in your school and public library.

Young Adult Book Review: Airborn by K. Oppel    Lexile Level 760

What if airplanes hadn’t been invented? In Airborn, dirigibles are the main mode of air transportation. Strange airships with flapping wings and hot air balloons share the skies with huge luxury liners in the style of the Hindenburg in this Victorian age fantasy.

The author takes care to create a world in which these airships seem plausible, even including a diagram of the Aurora, the flagship of the Lunardi Line, on which young Matt Cruse is employed.  Matt is just 15, and only a cabin boy, but he is a respected member of the Aurora’s crew, in part because many of them knew and respected his father. Matt loves to be aboard the Aurora, feeling close to his father who died in the line of duty just a few years prior. Matt works to support his mother and younger siblings, and the Aurora is his home.

While on night watch, Matt witnesses a lone air balloon drifting across the Aurora’s path. As the Aurora crew retrieves the balloon, they rescue the elderly pilot of the balloon who has suffered a heart attack. Matt visits the gentleman in the infirmary and has a cryptic conversation with him just hours before the old man’s death.

A few months later, a rich, young woman about Matt’s age is a passenger on the ship. She is refreshingly curious about the airship, how she flies, and what course she follows across the Pacificus.  Matt finds an unlikely companion in this smart, inquisitive, and assertive girl. It isn’t long before he discovers she has more than just a passing curiosity about the airship; she has a private agenda for being on the Aurora. It was her grandfather who they rescued from the air balloon and he has left his grand daughter his journal of the ill fated trip. The journal contains notes and drawings of a mythological animal never before described, and Kate is determined to confirm his discovery.

Kate and Matt’s adventure is complete with shipwreck, armed pirates, dangerous treks through a wilderness island, and encounters with wild animals which view humans as prey.  There is quite a bit of violence in this story – mostly involving the murderous pirates. The story begins a little slowly as the author tries to create this imaginary world where dirigibles run on hydrium, but it soon takes off at a gallop.

Matt helps Kate look for her grandfather’s mysterious creature. Kate has educated herself in biology and zoology, and she is determined to find a specimen of the creature to prove to the world that her grandfather was right.

There is plenty of good adventure here, but there is also a fair amount of violence and cussing; enough of it to warrant a thorough preview and in my opinion make the book inappropriate for younger children and tweens- and  perhaps unwelcome for teenagers.  In most cases, the violence is part of the pirate theme and adventurous feel of the story, but I don’t think the cussing adds anything worth value. In one particular case, it actually seemed out of place- almost as if it was left in by mistake, or added simply for shock value.*


Matt feels out of place in the land-bound home of his mother. He describes it as feeling like a prison where his “mother’s exhaustion and silent worry filled up the cramped rooms until I was afraid I’d suffocate.”

A dying man is described as “coughing, his whole body jerking.”

Matt’s crew mate has a “sweet heart” and he intends to propose to her. The picture on his wall is  of her “in a daring one piece bathing suit, her skin all tanned, and she looked so womanly that it made me uncomfortable to gaze at it too long-though I wanted to- as though I was peeping at something I shouldn’t.“

There are a few places where Matt’s new awareness of women is touched on by comments that Kate looks pretty; he notices her eyes; her legs; he would like to kiss her. There are two kisses between the two main characters. Pg 284

Matt serves wine, port, brandy, scotch and whiskey to passengers.

The ship is overtaken by armed pirates and one of the crew members is shot and killed. “He drew his pistol and shot Featherstone point-blank in the head.” Pg 105

A few uses of “b***ard.”

One use of “Who the feck are they?” *No, that isn’t a typo, or my way of avoiding a cuss word. That is the term in the book; feck with an ‘e.’ This seemed silly to me. Is this an attempt at not using the F-word, while using the F-word? Was this a mistake? A failed joke? Pg 249

Matt and Kate are captured by the pirates. Matt tries to lie his way out of giving up the whereabouts of the crippled Aurora. The pirates give them alcohol hidden in mango juice to try and get the truth out of them. Kate is described as slurring her words and looking flushed.  Matt just keeps thinking how good the mango juice tastes until he realizes what the pirates are up to. Pgs 264-266

One character is badly wounded by one of the cat-like, mysterious creatures. There is mention of his “torn trousers, ragged with blood.” Matt and Kate are chased by the creature.

Kate expresses anger and frustration at the pirates. They must fight their way back to the ship and she naively states they should just “whack them on the head with something very hard… right in the skull.” Pg 290

Matt and another crew member are chased by the pirates. A gun is held to Matt’s head. The crew member is shot and killed. “Bruce lay crumpled on the floor. Blood pooled stickily about his head.”

A pirate mistakenly shoots another pirate. “The pirate clutched at his neck and a dark stain of blood seeped between his fingers as he sagged to the floor, cursing his life way.”

The cat-like creature attacks a pirate on two different occasions, killing them and feeding on them.  Pgs 332 and 340.

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