Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing
Harper Collins, 1997

This read is the one that most excited me when I selected it for the Once Upon a Time Challenge; it’s been sitting on my shelves for more than ten years.

Sure, I’ve been to the Royal Ontario Museum’s Bat Cave a handful of times.

And I’ve read Janell Cannon’s Stellaluna more than a few times.

And when Mr. BIP and I were living in Guelph, ON, there was a bench on a picturesque street corner near the old piano-factory building we called home that offered the perfect view of acro-bat-ics at dusk on clear, temperate evenings.

But overall, my bat experience is limited.

I was raised on other kinds of animal stories, like Marshall Saunders’ Beautiful Joe, Mary Calhoun’s House of Thirty Cats, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincotegue, Robert Lawson’s Rabbit Hill, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, and assorted Beatrix Potter tales. And, oh, Freddy the Pig!

Yes: dogs and cats, horses and rabbits, and frogs and toads, and mice and rats, even pigs, and also a mongoose. No bats.

Which didn’t effect my enjoyment of Silverwing one bit. And, now, because of my experience with Shade, a young Silverwing bat, I feel quite the expert. Well, no, perhaps when I finish the rest of the books in the series (Sunwing, Firewing and Darkwing), I will be an expert. (Because of course I must read them now: I’ve found Oppel’s storytelling — and, perhaps even more importantly, Shade’s character — irresistible.)

Here’s a quote from Jean Little that captures the appeal of this page-turning bat adventure: “I have, for years, envied those fantasists who have managed, like Richard Adams and, more recently, Philip Pullman, to write books exciting enough to captivate imaginative children and challenging enough to enchant choosy, more sophisticated, adults. I believe that Kenneth Oppel has achieved this feat.”

When you think about it, it really is remarkable. And deliberately so. Kenneth Oppel began by being interested in bats themselves, not only biological but mythically, considering the folklore that surrounded their genesis, why they only fly at night and how they relate to the rest of the animal world, whether they are birds or beasts.

He willingly adopted the challenge of incorporating them into his storytelling, finding a way to describe their worldview. He was most impressed by their sight (black-and-white but sighted, not blind, as is often assumed) and does not include a single colour in the book, and by their use of sound to find their way through the world (their sonic vision and the song maps that they use to migrate, sometimes even crossing oceans). “I also liked the challenge of taking animals that many might consider ‘ugly’ or ‘scary’ and fashioning them into interesting, appealing characters.”

“But would kids be able to identify with bats?” he asks. Well, I haven’t tested that theory yet (although I intend to), but he certainly won me over. Shade, I mean (which, I suppose, also means Kenneth Oppel, but Shade is such a determined and resourceful creature that I find it hard not to credit him with the success directly).

Having so enjoyed my last YA/kidlit read, The Shadow Speaker, I was a little hesitant to pick up this novel after all. Even though I’d initially been so excited about reading this one that I’d saved it for the final read for this challenge, I really wanted to give the other a little time to resonate before launching into this one (note: flying jargon).

But I honestly could not put Silverwing down again after the first chapter. Shade and Ariel (his mother) pulled me into the story immediately and sharply and expanded my idea of a good animal story in just a handful of pages.

Were you, too, raised on animal stories; did you have favourites?