Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

  • Title: Airborndownload
  • Author: Kenneth Oppel
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0060531827
  • Page Count: 544
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: steampunk
  • Award(s): Printz honor

Author information: Kenneth Oppel is a Canadian author who has written more than a dozen titles for children of all ages. His website contains biographical information as well as frequently asked questions, information about his books, and upcoming news and events. He also has a portion of his website devoted to teachers, where they can find study guides for most of his novels.

Reviews:School Library Journal, Kirkus and Booklist gave this title positive reviews. They commented on the fact that this novel is full of action, adventure, and fun, and Kirkus also points out Oppel’s keen attention to detail when describing the workings of the airships. Booklist says that the reader will have to suspend disbelief when confronted with the concept of the cloud cats, but that overall it is an enthralling read.

Summary: Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard the Aurora, and since his father’s death it is the only place that feels like home, and his life goal is to one day be her captain. One day, Matt helps rescue a dying man and his airship and the man tells him about magical creatures before he takes his last breath. A year later, during a routine voyage, Matt meets this man’s granddaughter, Kate, who is determined to find what her grandfather saw. After being boarded and shipwrecked by pirates, Matt and Kate find themselves on the same island her grandfather spoke of, and see firsthand the creatures he wrote about. Headstrong Kate goes to increasingly aggressive lengths to document these animals so she will have proof when she returns home, but her antics ultimately jeopardize the entire airship and everyone aboard. A rescue attempt, led by Matt, will determine the fate of the passengers and crew.

Evaluation: I can understand why this book is so popular, but I was a bit surprised to learn that it won a Printz honor. Oppel does a fantastic job of world-building and placing the reader in the narrative, and the pacing is that edge-of-your-seat, what-happens-next style that is middle grade gold. I loved the setting and all of the descriptive passages, and I also enjoyed the fact that it felt like an old-school, classic adventure story a la Treasure Island, but with an updated backdrop. However, I didn’t think the characters were very compelling. Matt struck me as being very one-note: most of his interior thoughts are about how much he loves his airship and feels at home on it, which is important for character development up to a point, but I feel like that’s all we got from him. Kate bothered me even more. It feels as though Oppel needed to fill his Strong Female Character quota and so he created Kate, but she just ends up coming across as stubborn, selfish, and short-sighted. There is much to like here, and I know exactly the type of reader I could give this book to, but it sadly didn’t resonate with me the way I had hoped it would.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The writing and descriptive passages of the book are engaging, but the plot is predictable and the characters feel more like caricatures than real people, especially Kate in her role as Strong Female Character (who actually ruins everything).
  • Popularity: 4/5  Readers looking for light action and adventure will enjoy this title. The steampunk setting, cloud cats, pirates, narrow escapes and ultimate triumph make this a title that’s easy to recommend, especially to younger fantasy/sci-fi readers who might not be ready for something heavier yet.
  • Appeal factors: steampunk, pirates, mythical creatures, action/adventure.


  1.  Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is an obvious choice for readers who enjoyed this book. Both titles are set in a steampunk alternate past where airships rule the skies. Both have likeable young male protagonists and plucky female characters who aren’t content with their social roles. Leviathan has more of a war/political bent, whereas Airborn is more of a traditional pirate/adventure story.
  2. Another good steampunk recommendation would be Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. Hester is clearly more of a badass female character than Kate, but there are some parallels between them, as well as between Tom and Matt, the male protagonists. Airborn is the lighter of the two, as Reeve doesn’t hesitate to kill or hurt his main characters, but both books showcase children/teens trying to save their homes and way of life (with varying levels of success or enlightenment along the way).
  3. Readers who enjoyed the traditional pirate/shipwreck story would likely enjoy a classic such as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Pirates, swashbuckling, mysterious clues in the form of journals and maps, and tropical islands abound in both titles.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does Matt feel so connected to the Aurora?
  2. Both Matt and Kate are limited by their circumstances: Matt is poor, and Kate is a girl. How do they work to overcome these obstacles? Do you think they get what they want by the end of the book?
  3. Why do you think Oppel decided to set this book in an alternate reality past? Does this work? Why or why not?
  4. On several occasions in Airborn, Matt disobeys the orders of his captain. What motivates him to do so?
  5. Is Matt a hero?
  6. Do you like the character of Kate? Is she strong? Selfish?
  7. In what ways are Matt and the cloud cat similar?

Reason for reading: This is one of those titles that has been on my to-read list for years. I like steampunk (Mortal Engines is one of my favorite young YA books) and Airborn has gotten pretty positive reviews from both my co-workers and the online community. What finally pushed this book to the top of my reading pile is the fact that I’m hosting a middle school book club at the library, and this is the selection for this month. This particular group also really loves steampunk and science fiction (we’ve done both Mortal Engines and Leviathan with them), so I expect this will also get a good response from them (but I will report back).

**Reporting back** I had 11 middle schoolers (most of them rising 6th graders) who attended our book club event for this title. 8 of them liked the book, 1 did not, and 2 didn’t finish it. The ones who enjoyed it liked the heavy action and the humor of the book, whereas the girl who didn’t thought it was predictable and didn’t feel engaged with the characters.

Additional relevant information: This book is the first in a triology. Airborn was optioned for a movie in 2012 with Oppel to write the preliminary script and be an executive producer, but I was unable to find any current information about this project.


The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

  • Title: The 5th Wave
  • Author: Rick Yancey
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 0399162410
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 592
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: science fiction
  • Award(s): New York Times Bestseller; YALSA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults; Carnegie Medal in Literature Nominee

Author information: Rick Yancey has written numerous titles for teens and adults. His websiteincludes a biography about himself, links to all of his titles, contact information and appearance dates, and a link to his blog. His blog only has three posts, but all of them are from 2013, which means that it may just be a recent blog that is updated infrequently. One of the posts was a list of twelve things the reader didn’t know about the author. His website also includes his Twitter feed, which is updated regularly. His most recent posts have to do with the casting of a film adaptation of The 5th Wave as well as information and book trailers for upcoming and more recent books.

Reviews: This title was given starred reviews by Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly as well as a Perfect Ten from VOYA and a favorable review from School Library Journal. SLJ comments on the fact that this novel has strong multi-dimensional characters and is fast paced with many plot twists and turns. Multiple reviews mention that its dystopian plot and setting will appeal to young adults, especially fans of The Hunger Games. Kirkus says:

The 500-plus-page novel surges forward full throttle with an intense, alarming tone full of danger, deceit and a touch of romance. The plot flips back and forth with so much action and so many expert twists that readers will constantly question whom they can trust and whom they can’t. Best of all, everything feels totally real, and that makes it all the more riveting.

Summary: Cassie is a teenage girl who is fighting for survival in a dystopian Earth that is systematically being attacked by an alien race. They have sent four waves of destruction to kill humankind: an EMP wave that disrupted and disabled all electronics, from phones and computers to car and airplane technology. The second wave was a huge metalic rod dropped from the sky that caused massive tsunamis and wiped out all of the coastal coutnries and states. Following that was the third wave, a plague carried by bird that killed the vast majority of the human population. The fourth wave was the Silencers, human-looking assassins that have been tasked with picking off survivors. Cassie has survived the first four waves and is trying to locate her brother, from whom she was separated after the third wave. Another teenager, Ben, has also survived the waves and has been taken to a military camp to train to annihilate the aliens and reclaim the Earth. Both Cassie and Ben learn that nothing is as it seems, and that they must constantly be wary of trusting others.

Evaluation: This title truly packs a double whammy: a gripping plot and beautiful, evocative writing. Yancey does a tremendous job of creating a bleak and terrifying dystopian world as seen through the eyes of two young survivors. Cassie’s character seems realistic: she tough and hardened by everything she’s experienced, but she has moments of panic and vulnerability that elevate her above a stereotypical “strong female character” trope. The themes of trust, family, promises, and survival that recur throughout the novel add a deeper layer to what could easily have been a campy book and make this title a gem for book clubs. And although the premise of this book is aliens committing genocide against humankind, it absolutely makes the reader think about other, actual instances of genocide and mass murder that have occurred throughout human history. While the romantic element of the novel wasn’t my favorite plot thread of the book, I do think it worked and was plausible given the extreme circumstances Cassie endured. There are some plot points that were perhaps easy to predict, but there are enough twists in the novel to keep even the most experienced reader on her toes.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  Not only does the plot draw in readers from the first page and make it difficult to set the book down, but the writing is beautiful and poignant and would hold up to multiple readings. The 5th Wave reflects on many of the most fundamental themes of being human–love, trust, survival, family, loneliness–which is guaranteed to be thought provoking and generate discussion.
  • Popularity: 5/5  The dystopian setting, compelling characters, fast plot, and of course, the premise of alien invasion is sure to pique the interest of many young adults. This is a novel that, once finished, begs to be recommended to friends or discussed in a book club.
  • Appeal factors: aliens, violence, lyrical writing, survival, dystopia, war, trilogies, strong female characters.


  1.  I am Number Four by Pitticus Lore would be a good suggestion for readers who don’t shy away from violence and like the concept of a murderous race of aliens set on destruction. While Number Four incorporates teenage aliens with superpowers and can be more campy than Yancey’s title, both have a lot of action and are fast paced.
  2. Readers who liked reading about Cassie’s struggles for survival may appreciate the struggles of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Both leading characters have witnessed unspeakable horrors and injustices, and they are both motivated by their love and desire to protect their younger siblings.
  3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card also offers a look at humanity vs. aliens. The military training and brainwashing that Ender endures is akin to what Sam, Cassie’s brother, goes through at the Others’ training facility.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you agree with Cassie’s argument that “only the strong” remain by the time the 5th wave hits? Why or why not?
  2. Which wave did you find the scariest? Why? Was there a particular moment or scene that you found particularly horrifying?
  3. Cassie is compared to a mayfly, why? If you compared yourself to an insect, what would you be and why?
  4. Discuss how trust is built and destroyed in this book. How do you think the sowing of suspicion plays into the Others’ plan to destroy humanity?

Reason for reading: I will admit that I probably have a bias regarding this book. I love science fiction and dystopias, and I think that Rick Yancey is one of greatest YA horror writers alive today. That being said, I had very high expectations regarding this book, and it didn’t disappoint. Because of the nature of being a youth librarian, I’ll often read the first title in a trilogy or series and feel like I’ve gotten enough from that first book that I can confidently recommend the series or author to the appropriate audience without reading on. The Fifth Wave is one of the rare books that not only got me to read the second in the series (The Infinite Sea), but it got me to do so the very next day. I’ve become a huge 5th Wave fangirl and am eagerly anticipating the release of the movie and final book.

Additional relevant information: Chunk Wendig (another YA author) interviewed Rick Yancey about The 5th Wave on his blog. Yancey answers questions about his favorite paragraph in the book, how he got the idea for the novel, and what the most difficult part of writing it was. It’s a very quick interview, but one that fans of the book will enjoy, as it adds insight and texture to the novel they already love.

This novel also has a pretty fabulous book trailer. A film is set to release January 2016, but currently there is no trailer for the movie.