All right, the topic is Famous Ape Books of Children’s Literature. And . . . go. Care to name any? Well there’s Curious George, of course (often mistakenly called a monkey in spite of his lack of tail). He’s the most famous but after that it gets harder. Eva by Peter Dickinson might count (also a chimp). Or a book like Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby (chimp). Gorillas appear to be much rarer, which is funny when you consider it. I would think an animal as big and impressive as a gorilla would be a no brainer children’s book hero. As it happens, Ivan of The One and Only Ivan is a rarity, and not just because his story covers ground that few other books have (with the exception of the odd Good Night Gorilla). Katherine Applegate’s title is a cry for animal rights that works on its reader in slow subtle steps. You will find no screeds or speeches or long lengthy lamentations. Instead, it’s just a gorilla living what life he can, until the day he can stay silent no longer. Thanks to its restraint the book ends up being a gem. One of the best of the year, no doubt.
Basically what we have here is Charlotte’s Web if you took that tiny spider and replaced her with a 300-pound gorilla. Which, to be frank, would normally bode badly for said gorilla. And certainly badly is how Ivan, the titular hero of this tale, bodes when you consider that he is trapped in an off-highway mall circus. Ivan’s never questioned his fate seriously, considering that he’s been there for twenty-seven years. Then one day Mack, the owner of the mall, decides that the only way to drum up more business will be to buy a new resident. There’s already Ivan and Stella, the elephant with an injured foot that doesn’t seem to be getting better. To this mix comes Ruby, a baby elephant not long captured from her home in the wild. Thanks to Ruby, Ivan sees that this is no place for a baby of any sort and he must use all his brains and intelligence to find a way to save not just her but himself as well.
It is the temptation of every author, bad or good, to simplify ethics when they write for kids. Bad guys are bad, good guys are good, and never the twain shall meet. This is particularly true of animal abuse stories. After all, who wants to go about digging up a heart of gold in a character that kicks puppies? Yet the best books for kids are often the ones that allow for at least a glimpse of the human inside the villain. It’s the reason Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Shiloh works as well as it does and it’s one of the reasons why The One and Only Ivan distinguishes itself. Mack is the villain here, no question about it. You don’t go about hitting baby elephants with sharp objects without it rubbing off on your character, so to speak. But there are depths to Mack as well. He’s a man who really did love Ivan on some level when the gorilla was a baby. Then his wife left him and he started hitting the booze to deal with his financial problems. There are a lot of Macks in this world and I think it’s worth letting a kid know that they can feel sorry for someone but still hold them accountable for their actions. No matter how bad you feel for the guy, Applegate never lets you forget that he’s the reason for Ivan, Thelma, and Ruby’s imprisonment.
I don’t think Applegate could have gotten very far in this novel if she hadn’t gotten Ivan’s voice right from page one onwards. I got hooked pretty early on when in describing his situation Ivan says simply, “At present, I do not have any gorilla friends.” The temptation to anthropomorphize must have been great. We can’t ever really know what a gorilla is thinking at a given time, but Applegate plays nicely with the differences between what we think and what he thinks. Ivan isn’t stupid by gorilla means but kids might find his thought process a bit slow from the human standpoint. That’s okay. He comes to thoughts and ideas in his own time. Plus the pacing of those thoughts and ideas works well. I’m a sucker for a good emotional beat. Ivan has to grow and change in the course of this novel, even if he’s physically trapped. So Applegate parcels out his growth incrementally but quickly enough that the child reader doesn’t get bored. There are worlds worth of meaning loaded in the way Ivan eventually changes from referring to his home as his “domain” to his “cage”. Worlds.
Generally speaking, when a book is written as a verse novel I like there to be a reason for it. For example, Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again uses its verse as a way of considering the transition from one culture and language to another. When I encountered verse in The One and Only Ivan I initially dismissed it as yet another easy authorial trope. Thinking about it, though, I’ve come to the realization that verse works well here probably because Ivan is not a human. His thoughts are vast and complex but restrained (by choice, to a certain extent, and by nature itself). Applegate also takes great care in how she uses language. Her descriptions can be delicious. A seal has a “voice like the throaty bark of a dog chained outside on a cold night.” “Humans always smell odd when change is in the air. Like rotten meat with a hint of papaya.” “Human babies are an ugly lot. But their eyes are like our babies’ eyes. Too big for their faces, and for the world.” And a mop, “moves across the empty food court like a giant brush, painting a picture no one will ever see.”
The violence when it comes is well done. You’re not even entirely certain anything has actually been done to the baby elephant, but the claw-stick is always there like an unspoken threat. Physical violence in this book doesn’t really occur. It’s the psychological kind that’s more common. Keeping wild animals in tiny penned concrete cages is something children can understand. They too are kept in enclosed areas, sometimes against their will. And even they can comprehend what it would do to someone to only know the walls around you. Why doesn’t Ivan fight back? He does. He just needs someone to protect first.
The illustrations pose a bit of a puzzle, though. They’re not bad by any means. Just . . . off. A friend of mine likened them to the cover of The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. To her mind the image of a dog and kittens gives Appelt’s novel a misleading sunshine and rainbows feel where instead you find a book of gritty magical realism (new genre). I didn’t really see it with Appelt’s book but I definitely felt that way about the pictures in Ivan. Though I wouldn’t label Applegate’s book as bleak or morose, there is a seriousness to it. We’re dealing with the subject of abuse, mental and physical to a certain extent. Yet looking at the cover I see a gorilla and an adorable baby elephant hanging out together. Inside it’s the same. Artist Patricia Castelao’s pictures are well made but they evoke a sweeter simpler novel that what we have in our hands here. I suspect that may have been the point, though. You can counter darker written material with sweet images. I just don’t think this is quite the ideal pairing of the two.
I had a moment of confusion and doubt early on in the book around page 166 when I wondered if the book was defending zoos. Ivan tells Ruby that zoos are where “humans make amends.” It would make for a good book group discussion point: Does the author think zoos are a good thing or a bad thing? Be sure to bring up the fact that Ivan sees the inside of a zoo at one point and comments, “It’s not a perfect place . . . A perfect place would not need walls. But it’s the place I need.” Well this is the book we need. Consider it an animal book for those kids who don’t like animal books. There’s nothing twee or precious about it. Just good crisp writing, complex characters, and a story that will make animal rights activists out of the most lethargic of readers. Applegate has penned a real doozy of a book that speaks to the best and worst in all of us.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Quibble: A brief one. At the start of the book is a quote credited to George Eliot that says “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” A good line though in a recent New Yorker article entitled Middlemarch and Me by Rebecca Mead the author learned that this line does not apparently appear in any George Eliot novel. What’s more, it’s almost impossible to figure out where that line came from. Fascinating stuff.
Misc: Be sure to check out Ms. Applegate’s site for this book, which includes information on the real Ivan and his story.
Here’s the British jacket for the same book.
Videos: The book trailer, of course.