And here we go. It’s nice to start with a title that’s likely already got a lot of readers, a lot of buzz, and plenty to discuss. That’d be Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN…which I know many of you’d read in ARC even before last year’s results were in.
Strong early spring titles tend to top the popular polls, and this one currently ranks #2 on the Goodreads Newbery 2013 list…probably because of sheer number of voters/readers. As I read through reviews of Goodreads “friends” who tend to be as critical as I, I see a theme emerging and it’s that we like it despite ourselves, or came to it reluctantly, or…are just not quite sure why it knocks our socks off. All three statements go for me, though a recent re-read is helping me with the last one.
The cover of this book filled me with trepidation. “The Underneath Meets Edward Tulane,” I thought, and found, right away in my reading, concern in the overuse of language. Ivan tells us that “Humans waste words…Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.” (p.2-3, ARC). Yet in those same first pages, Applegate puts bushels of pretty words into Ivan’s mouth, often with overladen and unessential simile: ”I have a gorilla’s shy gaze, a gorilla’s sly smile. I wear a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback. When the sun warms my back, I cast a gorilla’s majestic shadow.” (p. 4 ARC), or “I used to have a neighbor, a sleek and thoughtful seal, who could balance a ball on her nose from dawn till dusk. Her voice was like the throaty bark of a dog chained outside on a cold night. / Children wished on pennies and tossed them into her plastic pool. They glowed on the bottom like flat copper stones.” (p.11 ARC). These are both lovely passages in themselves, and I wouldn’t fault Applegate her words if she’d posited a wordy character. But these passages take a lot of words to say what they say, and the metaphors in them don’t add anything to the picture. Why can’t the seal’s bark just be throaty? The pennies just glow? The similes used for these don’t add anything to the picture or the character or the plot. (An example of a useful simile is on page 94: “She makes a happy, lilting sound, an elephant laugh. It’s like the song of a bird I recall from long ago, a tiny yellow bird with a voice like dancing water.” This double-simile both helps the reader hear exactly what the sound is like, and advances the emotional plot, as we now feel the nostalgia that Ivan does on hearing it.) There are a lot of passages like these in the first several dozen pages as Applegate sets her scenes and characters, making Ivan’s voice sound diametrically unlike what she’s suggested it should.
It takes a while for Applegate to work herself out of this super-metaphorical language to a point where it starts sounding more natural, and to bring in all the characters that start to move the story forward…namely, Ruby. Once she’s got it going though…she somehow is completely convincing, and I’m willing to forget Ivan’s initially inconsistent voice and believe wholly in his character. So how did she manage it? I’m still not exactly sure. The animals gestures feel true, and vivid, and consistent, so that I believe in each character as the animal they are. And the complexity of Ivan and Mack’s relationship as it’s slowly revealed helps me believe more in some of Ivan’s peculiarities–it helps to understand why he understands humans so well (and why, for instance, he might compare a seal’s bark to that of a dog chained outside at night. Too late though). The climax teeters on preposterous, and yet Applegate keeps it realistic: Ivan’s drawings are messy, and crumpled, and depend on the luck of a friend being able to see the bigger picture. And Mack is never wholly good or bad–becoming, rather, tragic–so that the happy ending is tempered by his sadness.
So, when it comes down to it, from a Newbery perspective, am I willing to forgive the book its hard path in to a great story? I find the slow start and “warming up” voice a significant flaw. We do get significant payoff…payoff that speaks directly to the terms and criteria of the Newbery award, being “individually distinct” and “noted for significant achievement.” So, it goes on my “possibly…” shelf, to wait for some comparisons. It’s looking like a strong year.