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.

Read-alikes: 

  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.