The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate isn’t the type of book I would normally pick up on my own, but it’s a Cybils Middle Grade Fiction nominee, and it has received some buzz as a potential Newbery winner, so I had to give it a go. I almost abandoned it mid-read because of my predilection against the anthropomorphizing of animals and lack of interest, but I persevered and even mildly enjoyed it. While I would never call it a favorite of mine, I can see why people like it and even why it has received a measure of critical acclaim.
Here’s the story: Ivan the gorilla is the main feature at a circus-themed mall, where he has lived for years. (By his own reckoning he has lived with humans for over 9,876 days, and he came to live at the mall when living in the mall manager’s home became impossible any longer.) He loves Ruby, the elephant who lives in the “domain” next to his, as well as Bob, the stray dog who sleeps on his belly at night. He also loves Julia, the young daughter of the mall custodian who comes to work with her father at night. Julia loves art, and somehow she realizes that Ivan might enjoy making his own art, so she slips him a crayon and a piece of paper through a crack in the glass of his domain. It turns out that drawing is something that Ivan has loved to do since he was a young gorilla in the wild, so this turns out to be a win for everyone. The mall manager, Mack, is concerned about the declining profits of the mall, so he capitalizes on Ivan’s talent for painting by selling Ivan’s art in a shop in the mall. However, Mack’s real hope for rejuvenating the mall comes in the form of a baby elephant named Ruby. Things go better at the mall, and Stella seems to have found a new reason for living in having one of her own kind to care for. However, things go from tolerable to difficult for Ivan, especially, when Stella dies. Ivan makes a promise, though, that he will take care of Ruby, and the rest of the story spins out just what Ivan does to keep his promise.
Okay, so it’s a sad story with a whole lot of heart. Written sparsely but very descriptively, the whole book is told from Ivan’s perspective, and he is a very poetic gorilla. This is Ivan on his appearance:
I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.
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.
In my size humans see a test of themselves. They hear fighting words on the wind, when all I’m thinking is how the late-day sun reminds me of a ripe nectarine. (4)
The story is very poignant, with Ivan and the other animals in what seem like an impossibly terrible situation, and his voice matches the poignancy of the situation–slightly melancholy and extremely intelligent. However, in a Charlotte’s Web-like turn of events, things do vastly improve. The resolution seems just a bit unrealistic, but hey–it’s a story told from the perspective of a gorilla, so I was able to suspend my disbelief to finish it and even enjoy it. What I took away from it more than anything else is the need for animals to be in a community (family?–the terminology escapes me). Ivan is not being who he was meant to be–a mighty silverback, taking care of his troop (?). Having read a bit about animals–elephants, in particular–this resonated with me and struck a chord of recognition. I think this is the theme of the story that I like best.
I think this one has strong potential for both a Cybil and possibly a Newbery, but it’s just not my absolute favorite. Animal lovers might disagree. Incidentally, the character of Ivan is based on an actual gorilla who now resides at Zoo Atlanta. You can read more about him here. (Harper, 2012)