This is the first book in the fifteen-book series, The Guardians of Ga’Hoole. It is an epic fantasy series for young readers (grades 4 through 8) with owls as the main characters.
The story starts with a family of owls in their nest in a hollow of a fir tree high above the ground. The main character is a newly-hatched Barn Owl named Soren. Also in the nest are his parents, his slightly older brother, Kludd, and his ready-to-hatch sister, to be named Eglantine. Oh, there is also a blind snake in the nest, acting as a nest-maid, and her name is Mrs. Plithiver, or Mrs. P.
One day, while the parents are out hunting, Soren mysteriously falls from the nest. He survives but has no way to return to the nest. Before he can even figure out what to do, he is grabbed by a strange owl and taken far away to the St. Aegolius Academy for Orphans. Except, it is not an academy, as questions are strictly forbidden. Instead, it is more of a boot camp or concentration camp. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of very young owls, all of whom were snatched from their families. They are put through strict routines apparently aimed at making them mindless automatons. The young owls do not know what their instructors hope to gain by all this training of young owls, but Soren is sure that is nothing good. He befriends a young Pygmy Owl named Gylfie.
The two young owls, Soren and Gylfie, eventually find a way to escape the evil Academy and, having heard tales of mystical or mythical guardians (not Guardians of Ga’Hoole) go off in search of the faraway island where these guardians allegedly lived. Along the way, they make two friends: Twilight, a Great Gray Owl who was an orphan since birth; and Digger, a Burrowing Owl, whose family was murdered by hunters from the evil Academy. The four of them form a band and continue their quest to find the guardians and try to become guardians themselves. They want to eventually protect the world from the evil of the Academy of St. Aegolius.
The writing is crisp and clear, creating a fast pace. The vocabulary and word usage were appropriate to the target audience, but I like how the author was willing to occasionally throw in a word that would be a challenge for some readers. The challenge would not be big enough to frustrate the reader, or frequent enough to make some readers give up on the book, but it would be enough of a challenge to prompt some children to look up a word here and there. I was an avid reader, even as a child, and I remember always having a dictionary kept nearby just for that purpose. I firmly believe that this helped build my vocabulary.
In the note at the end of the book the author states that she has always loved owls and researched them before writing the books. Readers of this series will learn things about owls. While many of the terms used by the owls in the book are clearly fictional (e.g. yarp, yoicks, yeep), the concepts behind are solid. For example, "yarp" was used to refer to the process of an owl coughing up a pellet. Owls do indeed cough up such pellets that contain all the fur, skin, and bones of the animals that they swallowed whole.
There is also a concept talked about in the book that I thought was fictional but it turns out it has some basis in fact. The family of the main character, Soren, had a nest-maid snake who maintained the nest by eating all the parasites and insects the owls did not want. Some online research shows that there are examples of this occurring in nature. Of course, in nature, those snakes are not given names by the owls and treated as family members.
This is an exciting launch of a fantasy adventure series for younger readers. There is lots of action and some elements of danger. The danger is not such that, I think, many readers will be frightened but it will add an element of suspense. As soon as I finished the first book, I was ready to read the second (The Journey).
I bought a boxed set, with the first four books. The books have a dark gold starburst, reminiscent of the Newberry Medal, that simply says the books are now a motion picture (The Guardians of Ga’Hoole). I have not seen the movie, but hear that it is visually beautiful.