________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 30 . . . . April 9, 2010



Maureen Fergus.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2010.
224 pp., hardcover, $18.95.
ISBN 978-1-55453-474-6.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Crystal Sutherland.

**** /4


He supposed that to each other the students in the pictures all looked pretty different, but to him they all looked pretty much the same. And in spite of his talking, walking upright-even wearing ugly, uncomfortable new pants- there was no mistaking how different he looked from them.

Halfway up the stairs, he seized a handful of Dr. Susan's sweatshirt, dragging her to such a sudden stop that she nearly lost her balance.

"They won't like me," he said.

"They will."

"They won't, they'll think I'm a freak."

"You're not a freak, Ortega."

"Gee, thanks," he said sarcastically. "I feel much better now."

"What I mean is that being different from others doesn't make you a freak," she soothes as she peeled his fingers off her sweatshirt. "Being unique doesn't make you a freak. In our own ways, we're all different and unique. That's what makes each of us so special and interesting."


Ortega is a lot like your average 11-year-old boy: he likes reading, candy, and goofing around with friends. If he's told to do something he doesn't like, Ortega throws a tantrum, running around his room and throwing anything he can reach until he's exhausted. Ortega also complains about having to go to school, and he doesn't like it when people stare at him. Less like the average 11-year-old boy, Ortega loves fruit and vegetables, seeks revenge by licking keyboards and shredding "important-looking papers," and is a gorilla. Ortega also has a lot in common with the average gorilla, enjoying fresh fruit and sleeping in a nest on the floor over sleeping in a bed, but is very different in extraordinary ways.

     As a baby, Ortega was taken from his mother, a young female gorilla in captivity who was poorly prepared to take care of her first born son. Ortega's main handler, Dr. Susan, and her mother treat Ortega like family. The scientist in charge of Project Ortega, however, does not share the same affection for Ortega. He constantly reminds Ortega how important it is that advancement is made in the gorilla's ability to speak and that he does not deserve the indulgences and attention he receives from Dr. Susan. Whether he likes it or not, Ortega will be going to school!

     The idea of joining a class of 11-year-old children terrifies Ortega as it would any child arriving at a new school. No matter how much preparation there has been for his arrival, Ortega is sure he will frighten them all, students and teachers, and find himself with no friends. After some scary, embarrassing moments and a few misunderstandings, including a botched attempt at scaring the janitor, Ortega finds himself with friends who care for him deeply. When they believe his life is in danger, Ortega's best friends, Peter, Eugene, and Janice, plot to, and successfully do, steal him from the research lab and hide him until they figure out how to make a gorilla blend in in town. Their antics will have readers, no matter what their age, on the edge of their seats!

     Ortega spends much of the book trying to figure out where he fits in: he doesn't fit into the world of gorillas, but he also does not fit into the human world. He has a pet mouse and pet flies he rescued from scientists' laboratories so they would not suffer or die, but he knows he's in a situation not so different from what they have escaped. Ortega provides numerous opportunities to discuss what is acceptable in scientific and social settings (at a conference, instead of verbally answering questions asked by scientists, Ortega passes gas), and what divides animals from humans. Readers will be inspired to examine their actions and look at the world with more compassion.

     Ortega faces isolation, bullying, and discomfort caused by being different. In other words, he endures the same troubles every child suffers from time to time. He builds friendships with people he first thinks he could never like and with people he thinks would never want to befriend him. Ortega is a wonderful, and surprisingly suspenseful, read that has the potential to spawn interesting discussions about the differences between humans and other animals, animal experimentation, and what it means to be a friend. The book is a very enjoyable read that anyone who has ever felt like an outsider who doesn't fit in; in other words, everyone will be able to relate to an aspect of Ortega and will view the world and the people and animals in it with increased compassion.

Highly Recommended.

Crystal Sutherland holds Masters degrees in Literacy Education and Library and Information Science. She lives in Halifax, NS.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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