The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate
I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.
It’s not as easy as it looks.
Ivan is a silverback, to be more specific. His story is told in a series of short chapters, or maybe ‘concepts’ is a better description (Hello, Names, Patience, How I Look…and so on). As the Awards list at the top of this review suggests, this is a critically acclaimed book. More important to me is that it was referred to me by an 11yr old boy, who claims he does not like reading all that much*. If he only reads books as good as this one, I’m a happy teacher!
The One and Only Ivan is told from the perspective of Ivan, the silverback Gorilla. Ivan communicates to the reader through verse, which act as a sort of series of mind moments, in that each verse sentence presents an idea. Because it is written in verse, the effect is as though each sentence is a complete thought that a flashlight is shone upon for a moment, so that we can see it. They are visual, apparently simple, and yet they say so much more than what is said:
‘In my domain, I have a tyre swing, a baseball, a tiny plastic pool filled with dirty water, and even an old TV.
I have a stuffed toy gorilla too. Julia, the daughter of the weary man who cleans the mall each night, gave it to me.
The gorilla has empty eyes and floppy limbs, but I sleep with it every night. I call it Not-Tag.
Tag was my twin sister’s name.
Julia is ten years old. She has hair like black glass and a wide half-moon smile. She and I have a lot in common. We are both great apes, and we are both artists.’
The power of presenting each of these ideas in this way is that there is no judgement. Ivan simply tells us his truths, and as the reader we draw our own conclusions. You feel, as a reader, that there are acres of ideas between each statement. The ideas need white space around them because the truths they tell are much bigger than the words used to tell them.
We also enjoy old western movies. In a western, someone always says, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us, Sheriff.” In a western, you can tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and the good guys always win.
Bob says westerns are nothing like real life.
Ivan was captured as a baby and sold to Mack as a pet. Mack tries to care for him, but in the end Mack’s wife leaves him and Ivan grows too big to be kept at home.
Mack grew sullen. I grew bigger. I became what I was meant to be, too large for chairs, too strong for hugs, too big for human life.
So Mack moves him to a cage in a shopping mall. Ivan’s companions in the Mall are Bob, a dog of indeterminate heritage, and Stella, an elephant. He also gets to know Julia and her dad, George who is the Mall caretaker.
When I saw my new domain, I was thrilled, and who wouldn’t have been? It had no furniture to break. No glasses to smash. No toilets to drop Mack’s keys into.
It even had a tyre swing.
I was relieved to have my own place.
Somehow, I didn’t realise I’d be here quite so long.
Unfortunately the animals are not pulling in the people as they used to. Stella is unwell, with a bad foot, and Ivan is not a cute little gorilla anymore. Mack brings in Ruby, a baby elephant that he bought from a circus. Ruby’s arrival and talk of her capture brings memories back to Ivan, and he realises, with Bob’s help, that he needs to be The One and Only Ivan, as he is billed, to make sure Ruby does not live the life that he and Stella have.
‘Ivan?’ Ruby says in a voice so low I can barely hear her. ‘I have another question.’
I can tell from the sound of her voice that this will be a question I don’t want to answer.
Ruby taps her trunk against the rusty iron bars of her door. ‘Do you think,’ she asks, ‘that I’ll die in this domain someday, like Aunt Stella?’
Once again I consider lying, but when I look at Ruby, the half-formed words die in my throat. ‘Not if I can help it,’ I say instead.
I feel something tighten in my chest, something dark and hot. ‘And it’s not a domain,’ I add.
I pause, and then I say it. ‘It’s a cage.’
The writing in this book is superb. Single words have a huge impact because of the space the author allows around them. Look at the pause after ‘do you think’ created by putting ‘she asks’ there, instead of more conventionally at the end of the question. Little repetitions, like the ‘it’ in the last sentence above, are subtle and clever. They help the reader to linger on important ideas. Not only does this book have a great plot, and an unusual perspective, but the writing is something to be savoured.
This is a good companion book to Half-Brother, by Kenneth Oppel (Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2012), YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2011), CLA Book of the Year for Children Award (2011)), in that both books – without being preachy – lead the reader into profound areas, questioning the way humans treat and use animals, including the primates most genetically close to us. Half-Brother is more appropriate for older readers, as the YA award would suggest, about 12+, I think.
‘The One and Only Ivan,’ is a great read-aloud for parents and teachers. It introduces some very interesting ideas about ethics, and reminds us that no one is all good, or all bad. There’s a lot in here about compassion and taking the time to really understand things from another perspective. It’s also just a great story.
Most children from about 8+ would understand and get a lot from this story. Highly recommended. 5/5 stars.
*Kylene Beers, in talking about Middle Graders who don’t read, talks about aliteracy. These are children who can read perfectly well, but choose not to. We sometimes call them reluctant readers, which is probably not a fair term. They’re not exactly reluctant, they’re just very discerning. Beers prefers to call them ‘dormant readers’. They have very clear ideas about how they want to spend their time. As ‘Steve’ says, ‘I still like to read. I just can’t find any good books anymore.’ (Beers, K. 2005. Choosing not to read: Understanding why some middle schoolers just say no. Retrieved from: https://webfirst.uark.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Beers-Choosing-not-to-Read.pdf)
Cool little song, ‘Gotta Keep Reading’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfB2ar-AH0Q