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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

What You Might Have Been

When Nina introduced this book way back in September, her biggest quibble applegate 213x300 What You Might Have Beenwas with Ivan’s voice, particularly the rich metaphorical language that dominates the first 50 pages or so.  This didn’t bother me because, like many of you, I made a distinction between his thinking voice and his speaking voice.  However, I do still find that first section harder to get through than the rest of the book, even though it effectively establishes Ivan’s isolation and hopelessness.

When I stack THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN next to the others books on our shortlist, I think it compares quite favorably, stronger in some areas, perhaps weaker in others, but fairly middle of the pack, all things considered–with one notable expection: development of theme.  This is where I think this book can arguably lay claim to being most distinguished, as good or better than any other book in the field.

The great animal stories are not really about animals, after all.  WATERSHIP DOWN is not about rabbits.  CHARLOTTE’S WEB is not about barnyard animals.  That is, they are not really about animals–not in a thematic sense–they are about us, humans.  Despite the fact that Ivan claims he is a gorilla, despite his running commentary on the human-gorilla dichotomy, despite the true story that underlies this fictional one, Ivan is a person, and his story–like all great literature–explores what it means to be a person, to be human.

To be human is to feel empathy and compassion for fellow humans and other living creatures.

To be human is to use language–to need it–to communicate with fellow humans.

To be human is to have a powerful need for self-expression manifested through the process of creating art.

To be human is to have, whether real or adopted, a family.

To be human is to fulfill one’s potential, to be all that one can be.

To be human, to be fully human, requires the society of other humans.

Each of these themes is powerfully developed and entwined over the course of THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN.  Ivan seems pretty complacent, hopeless, resigned to a life of captivity–until Ruby.  His promise to find a different life for Ruby gives him the impetus to do for his young charge what he never would have done for himself.  This strikes me very much as the kind of sacrifice a parent would make so that his or her child could have a better life.  As Ivan puts all his creative resources toward fulfilling his promise, and as both Ruby and Ivan are delivered to the zoo, we come to the final 50 pages which deliver the most sublime of all the truths delivered in the book, the theme of hope, renewal, and second chances: It is never too late to be what you might have been.  All hail Ivan, Mighty Silverback!

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Okay, well, nobody seems to be itching to discuss THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Since Kirkus posted their Best Teen Books today, here is the overlap between the lists that are out so far: Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Horn Book, and Kirkus.

    four lists–

    THIS IS NOT MY HAT
    THE FAULT IN OUR STARS
    NO CRYSTAL STAIR
    LIAR AND SPY
    CODE NAME VERITY

    three lists–

    AND THEN IT’S SPRING
    THE DIVINERS
    IN A GLASS GRIMMLY
    ASK THE PASSENGERS
    GRAVE MERCY
    THE BRIDES OF ROLLROCK ISLAND
    SON
    WONDER
    RAVEN BOYS
    CHUCK CLOSE: FACE BOOK
    WE’VE GOT A JOB
    EXTRA YARN
    JIMMY THE GREATEST
    Z IS FOR MOOSE
    PENNY AND HER DOLL
    LITTLE WHITE DUCK
    SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS
    ISLAND
    MOONBIRD

    two lists–

    GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE DINOSAURS
    THE BEAR IN THE BOOK
    UNSPOKEN
    BITTERBLUE
    THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE
    THREE TIMES LUCKY
    DRAMA
    BEYOND COURAGE
    DREAMING UP
    GREEN
    A CERTAIN OCTOBER
    MY BOOK OF LIFE BY ANGEL
    DODGER
    MY NAME IS PARVANA
    ELECTRIC BEN
    TITANIC
    BOMB
    OH NO!
    ABRAHAM LINCOLN & FREDERICK DOUGLASS
    A BLACK HOLE IS NOT A HOLE
    SADIE AND RATZ
    SERAPHINA
    FIFTY CENTS AND A DREAM
    I HAVE A DREAM
    ONE TIMES SQUARE
    SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS
    THE MIGHTY MARS ROVERS
    THE BEETLE BOOK
    WHO COULD THAT BE AT THIS HOUR?
    TIGER LILY
    THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN
    THE WICKED AND THE JUST
    THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST
    KEEPING THE CASTLE
    EVERY DAY
    THE SPINDLERS
    ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE
    THE IMPOSSIBLE RESCUE

  2. Jen J. says:

    Biggest surprise for me with Kirkus choosing 200 books total between their kids and teen lists is that they didn’t choose Bomb! Due to varying tastes I could see not picking Bomb as the top book of the year, or even top 10 or top 25, but not in the top 200?

    Here’s info on the Best Books in a Google Spreadsheet. Scroll right on the top line to see numbers for how many books made 4 lists, 3, etc. and how many titles were named by each journal. Titles are also color coded by how many lists they made.

    http://ow.ly/fs615

  3. Mark Flowers says:

    @Jen – wow, the Kirkus lists were so long, I didn’t even notice the absence of BOMB. In general, the Kirkus lists are a bit of a mixed bag. For such a huge number of titles, I’m really surprised not to see either of the Horvath books, REMARKABLE, WOODEN BONES, STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY (!), CROW, EACH KINDNESS, and more.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The omission of BOMB is annoying because, as you say, if you leave it off a list of the top 200 without good reason then you really undermine the integrity of the entire list, not to mention your own professional judgment. They probably share Nina’s concern, but I’m not sure that Nina wouldn’t put it on a list of the top 200 books of the year, so . . . it’s weird.

    The big suprise for me is STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY which earned five starred reviews, but must now rely on Booklist and Bulletin for its best of the year lists. Ditto for CROW. Four starred reviews. No lists yet.

  5. Steffaney Smith says:

    So I’m looking for “Never Fall Down” by P. McCormick; “Prairie Evers” by Airgood and “Safekeeping” by Hesse. Besides “The Fault in Our Stars,” these 3 books are on the top of my favorites list. Maybe they only got 1 starred review? More research by me… Jonathan, I’d be interested in your view of “Prairie Evers.”

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    NEVER FALL DOWN is another one. Four starred reviews, but I don’t know that it’s made a list yet. Maybe SLJ? I’d have to double check. As for PRAIRIE EVERS and SAFEKEEPING. I’ve never even heard of the former; the latter got a starred review somewhere, I think.

  7. MJ says:

    STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY is on PW’s Best Books list.

  8. Sheila Welch says:

    I wonder how children are responding to THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. I remember visiting the Philadelphia zoo many, many years ago and seeing a gorilla in a small “habitat” who looked at me with utter despair. His expression has haunted me, so Ivan’s story was a nice one to read. I would think kids would be fascinated by this book although I’m not sure it’s the one that should win the Newbery.

    BOMB is not a favorite of mine for the award either because I can’t quite see how the writing is distinguished. Do you think KIRKUS decided not to include it on their “Best” list because the issue that bothered Nina also bothered them?

  9. Jen J. says:

    NEVER FALL DOWN is definitely on the SLJ list. It has not made any other lists so far. However, 2 of it’s 4 stars were from Booklist and the Bulletin which haven’t released their lists yet.

    I don’t have PRAIRIE EVERS listed with any stars or best lists. Bunches of libraries in my system own it though, including mine, so I suspect it got some good reviews just no stars.

    SAFEKEEPING is not on any lists yet and its one star is from SLJ so it’s not looking good for it for end of year lists.

    STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY was indeed named by PW. The Bulletin was the lone holdout on giving it a star so it’s looking like Booklist is likely it’s last best list hope.

    CROW is probably out of luck since neither Booklist nor the Bulletin gave it stars. With this one since it was an early pub, I wonder if the year was so crowded with excellent Civil Rights/Race titles that when looking at end of the year lists, people went with other titles to fill that “slot” – not that this is the way things should be done, but it seems likely to me that when trying to create well-rounded lists it happens anyway.

  10. Wendy says:

    Sheila, can you expand any more on how you didn’t find the writing distinguished in BOMB? This is a difficult one for me to articulate in a positive because it seems so… I don’t mean this in a critical way… so obvious or clear that it is excellent writing. Is there a specific lack you can point to?

  11. Sheila Welch says:

    I truly enjoy reading everyone’s comments and discussion although I’m not as passionately involved as some of you are. Without having read this blog, I probably would never have read BOMB. I usually choose nonfiction books based on my interest in the topic, and the making of the atomic bomb is not a subject I would normally want to explore. My reasons may include the fact that I’m old enough to remember my own fear of nuclear war, anger at our government for testing bombs, and general dismay at the possibility of destroying most of life on Earth. Some of you may argue that those memories should increase my interest in the topic, and I am certainly glad I read this book.

    Sheinkin does an excellent job, putting this amazing true story in order and organizing the astounding number of facts. I definitely admire his skill and respect his knowledge of the subject. This is an extremely well structured book that begins and ends with the focus on one of the many players in the “game.” In answer to the question about my comment, “BOMB is not a favorite of mine for the award . .. . because I can’t quite see how the writing is distinguished,” I am simply making a personal judgment. The book tells an exciting, intriguing story. It tells it in a clear, organized fashion. I appreciate the way it’s written, but, to me, it has a textbook feel to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s how the actual writing strikes me. So, I am not surprised to read that Sheinkin wrote for textbooks.

    Thanks, Jonathan, for giving the author the opportunity to explain how he used sources to recreate scenes. Fascinating! I wonder if his response satisfies Nina’s concerns.

  12. Nina Lindsay says:

    Sheila, I think we’ll have another opportunity soon to look at BOMB. So far no one has directly addressed my question/concern, though it’s been help to read Sheinkin and others’ comments. Again, I’m not questioning the presentation itself. It’s a valid presentation in the largest sense, and I feel this is a good book. I’m questioning whether the presentation is “distinguished for a child audience”…i.e., whether the choice of presenting the narrative and backmatter in the way he did is Newbery-worthy.

  13. Wendy says:

    You don’t think we’ve covered that, Nina? Maybe we haven’t, because I didn’t really understand that that was your argument, but I think that’s what all or most of us who have been praising BOMB have been implying all along–that this is distinguished for a child audience (or any audience).

  14. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I’ll reply more fully over at “Documentation” because I realized we’re on the wrong thread here. My question is particularly about the choices made in presenting documentation. I don’t think anyone’s argued actually that the style of presentaton of documentary is distinguished for the audience.

  15. Steffaney Smith says:

    I had to digest the posts about “star” ratings on the books in the medal running. As I read Newbery criteria, starred reviews were not one of the criteria, although I will admit they draw attention to a book. I hate to see them used as a “sifter” for those interested in pre-reading medal contenders, or trying to predict. The biggest predictor of a winner would be the year published…if a book is overlooked for a starred review (and maybe it’s a first-time author like Airgood), it cannot be in next year’s running. So to not read a good qualifier is deadly! I found “Prairie Evers” to be outstanding prose with the genius chicken allusions woven so cleverly into the dialog… Prairie Evers came alive for me, just as Comfort Snowberger in Debra Wiles’ “Each Little Bird That Sings” and Susan Patron’s “Lucky.” This is good writing and also accessible for teachers and students to share together as a read-aloud…covering also the topics of going to school for the first time in fifth grade; befriending someone who has a less than desirable parent/home life and how to best be a friend to that person. This book should have received starred reviews…I think it didn’t get read! Think of the fun in discovering a winner from the masses and not having risen through the “starred” ranks! Rob Reid would love this book — pick up any chapter and you can read it aloud to a child or class as a teaser to get them interested. I know we can’t read everything, but when there is buzz about a book and it missed getting starred, it’s sad to think them “out of contention”! I think there’s a good reason “bunches of libraries own it.” As for “The One and Only Ivan”, is Ivan’s point of view any worse than the rabbits in Lawson’s “Rabbit Hill”? I think people understand fiction. I just enjoyed the prose of the story. Inspired.

  16. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Steffany, happily, I can promise you that the star ratings have very little to do, if anything, with what gets considered at the actual Newbery table… they are considering *everything*, and you’re right that reviews–starred or no–have nothing to do with their criteria or process.

  17. Wendy says:

    But I think the main point is–the books that win the Newbery and Newbery Honors almost always have at least one star. They’re actually a very good way of “sifting” through the medal possibilities.

    • Steffaney Smith says:

      Thanks, Nina and Wendy, I know there must be some filtering in place for sifting through the eligible books. I just re-read reviews on “Prairie Evers” and couldn’t see why the raves didn’t result in stars. I should also mention I read “Liar & Spy” over the weekend and I am really disappointed; found myself forcing myself to continue — not even close to the level of expertise that “When You Reach Me” achieved. I’ll take “Summer of the Gypsy Moths” over that!

  18. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    …Well, a good way for us to sift through them, yes, because we don’t have time to read everything. But I think that “almost always have one star” actually points out the fallacy of looking at how many stars books have as any way of predicting an award. Of course, it’s fun.

  19. Wendy says:

    Agreed; I have protested before when people talk about the most-starred books as being sure things for the award, because history/statistics just doesn’t bear that out. But it’s a good way to make a reading list.

    • Steffaney Smith says:

      I always find it surprisingly fun when something wins a medal “out of the blue.” My favorite Newbery from past years to hand to parents or teachers for read-aloud is “The Single Shard” which kids would probably never pick up to read by themselves. Alot of times the Newbery award winners just don’t make a popularity read with the kids…so I am finding myself more and more considering not purchasing certain medal winners. Shelf space is one of a librarian’s considerations and I only need so many medal books sitting idly there, waiting three years for a check-out. “The One and Only Ivan” will circulate much more than “Splendors and Glooms.” I am so glad states have book awards, because those books that the young readers pick are very deserving of their sales! A medal winner will sell books, but maybe never get as many readers as one of the notable also-rans! The medal anticipation is always fun, though….that never gets old for me!

  20. Steffaney Smith says:

    Some of you are getting ready to travel to Seattle for ALA — have a safe trip and enjoy all the happenings! We who will be manning our stations in libraries will be waiting for the big reveals and wondering which authors got that early morning phone call….

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