I've learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans.
Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when thye have nothing to say.
It took me some time to recognize all the human sounds, the weave words into things. But I was patient.
Patient is a useful way to be when you're an ape.
Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans, not so much.
About a third of the way into the book I flipped to the author's note where I learned that Ivan is a real animal. After being captured, along with his twin sister (in The One and Only Ivan she is named Tag, her gorilla name because she loved to play tag) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they were transported to the US. Ivan's sister died shortly after arriving here but Ivan was raised in a home until he became too large. At that point he became an attraction at the B&I Public Marketplace in Tacoma, WA, where he lived for twenty-seven years. Applegate writes, "as an understanding of primate needs and behavior grew, public discomfort with Ivan's lonely state grew as well, particularly after he was featured in a National Geographic special titled The Urban Gorilla." When the mall went bankrupt Ivan was placed on permanent loan to the Atlanta Zoo. Applegate incorporates the facts of Ivan's life in America into her story, imagining what his life might have been like before being captured. Applegate also has her characters discuss the selfish and cruel behavior of humans. In a passage titled, "something else to buy," Ivan notes that "There is a cluttered, musty store near my cage. They sell an ashtray there. It is made from the hand of a gorilla."
However, Applegate also has animal characters who tell stories of human kindness as well as animals exhibiting gentle behavior that is counter to what humans expect. Applegate handles a story that, to us now, seems like a decades long maltreatment of wild animals and crafts characters and plot that present the issues but resolve them as well. It helps that the real Ivan has had a very happy second act to his life in America. I have to say, knowing that there really was an Ivan who spent twenty-seven years isolated in a circus mall definitely upped the emotional impact of the book. However, Patricia Castelao's soft illustrations and Applegate's inclusion of Bob, a tiny stray dog who sleeps on Ivan's chest by night and scavenges at the mall by day, bring relief, sometimes comic, from what could be an almost relentlessly sad story. I'll end with a final quote from Ivan, one that perfectly illustrates the anthropomorphic character Applegate has created for him, a character who both comforts the reader with his fortitude and makes the reader cheer when he becomes the silverback, the leader, that he was born to be. I strongly recommend this book to everyone, especially any teachers or parents who read out loud. I think that the chance to talk to children about the serious issues that arise in the book is invaluable.
Gorillas are not complainers. We're dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.