2.06.2012

The One and Only Ivan, written by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by Patricia Castelao, 300 pages, RL 3

Since I started writing book reviews I have become the kind of person who reads the quotes of praise on the back of the book, the dedications and always, always the author notes and acknowledgements. Katherine Applegate's newest book, The One and Only Ivan, comes with some very high praise from award winning authors Patricia MacLachlan ("Beautifully written, intelligent, and brave, this story is life changing") and Gary D Schmidt ("This book will break your heart - and then, against all odds, mend it again. Read this.") While I think that these author quotes could be applied to MacLachlan's latest book, Waiting for the Magic, and Schmidt's, Okay for Now, they are also very apt when speaking of The One and Only Ivan. I have to be honest, I don't normally like middle grade novels with animals as characters and, even after I read the description on the back of the book, it was the author quotes and my esteem for their own books that prompted me to read this book. It is everything that MacLachlan and Schmidt promised and so much more that is hard to distill into a book review.

Applegate's book begins with a quote from George Eliot, "It is never to late to be what you might have been," and is followed by a glossary of gorilla terms. This sentiment perfectly sums up the experiences of Ivan, the great silverback gorilla who has learned to adapt to his domain. It is Ivan who narrates his story and his voice is immediately enthralling and charming. He has a laid back yet philosophical view of the world, despite his less than ideal circumstances. Ivan is the main attraction at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Part zoo, part circus, part mall with a food court, Mack is the human who runs it and does his best to tend to the animals he keeps there, which include Stella, a retired circus elephant, and a few assorted animals like sun bears and birds and a dog named Snickers who jumps on Stella's back as part of the show. The problem is, Mack isn't so great at taking care of his animals, running the mall or bringing in the revenue he needs. George, the janitor at the mall, and his daughter Julia, know this about Mack and make up for it, somewhat, in their empathy for the animals. Ten year old Julia, a budding artist, brings treats and spends her time the animals while her father cleans up the mall every night. It is Julia who gives Ivan his first crayon and a piece of paper through a small hole in the glass of his cage. Of this gift Ivan says, 

I knew what to do with it. I'd watched Julia draw. When I dragged the crayon across the paper, it left a trail in its wake like a slithering blue snake.

Julia's drawings are wild with color and movement. She draws things that aren't real: clouds that smile and cats that swim.  She draws until her crayons break and her paper rips. Her pictures are like pieces of a dream.

I can't draw dreamy pictures. I never remember my dreams, although sometimes I awaken with my fists clenched and my heart hammering. 

My drawings seem pale and timid next to Julia's. She draws ideas in her head. I draw things in my cage, the simple items that fill my days: an apple core, a banana peel, a candy wrapper. (I often eat my subjects before I draw them.)

But even though I draw the same things over and over again, I never get bored with my art. When I'm drawing, that's all I think about. I don't think about where I am, about yesterday or tomorrow. I just move my crayon across the paper. 

I know that was a long passage to quote, but it gives you a good feel for the way Ivan thinks and talks. It is Ivan's art, art which Mack usually takes from him to sell in the gift shop, that Ivan turns to when he can think of no other way to keep a promise he made to Stella. Well, talent and patience. Ivan has deep reserves of patience and as a reflection of this, Applegate unravels her story slowly and in a sort of free-verse poetry. Of patience Ivan says,

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.

For more information about the real Ivan, check out The Atlanta Zoo website. For information about Ivan and the B&I Mall in Tacoma where he spent much of his life, click here. Ivan died on August 20th, 2012. In an interview after winning the Newbery for this book, Applegate said:

I went to Ivan's memorial service. I'd never been to a gorilla funeral. There were people who came from all over the world, people from Tacoma, people from Atlanta who'd visited him every week, the primatologist who got him moved, Charles Horton. But it took a real group effort to get him moved. He was quite a quirky gorilla, apparently. To see people gather over a western lowland gorilla was very moving. There's stuff I learned at that service I wished I'd known when I was writing the book.

Ivan in his new domain.

A painting by Ivan:



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