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The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan – Katherine Applegate

Newbery Medal (2013), School Library Journal Best of Children’s Books (2012), Kirkus Reviews Best of Children’s Books (2012)

Hello

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

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Filed under Animal stories, Children 8+, Five stars, Prize winners, Read Aloud

Red Rocks – Rachael King

Red Rocks4/5 stars.  Good story.  Evocative setting with some really gorgeous writing.

‘Waves battered the beach, chattering to the stones as they receded.  Jake stood still, watching the rocks, waiting for a movement.  And there it was: a seal, with sleek, damp fur, launching itself into the water like a torpedo.  He looked for it amongst the floating islands of kelp, thought he spotted it at first but no, there it was, further away.  It’s head surfaced and it rolled onto its back, raised one flipper as if in a wave and was gone.’

Red Rocks WellingtonRed Rocks Reserve, Wellington, New Zealand.

And so begins the story of Jake, visiting his writer father in Owhiro Bay, Wellington.  Jake normally lives in Auckland with his mother, her husband Greg and their new baby, Davey.  He is spending two weeks with his father over the school holidays.  His father is busy writing a book, so Jake has quite a lot of freedom, and goes exploring on his bike.  When he is exploring the red rocks, he discovers a fissure, a small cave, and hidden in the depths of the cave is a seal skin.  For a reason  not quite fathomable to Jake, he takes it home.  Soon after, he sees a red haired woman roaming town, appearing to search for something.  Jake meets Jessie, a young girl, who is the granddaughter of an old man, Ted, who lives in a shack on the beach.  Jessie has something mysterious about her:

‘The little girl had piqued his curiosity.  The way she looked at him made him want to talk to her, to find out what was going on behind those dark eyes.  She was younger than him, so maybe they wouldn’t have much to say to each other, but maybe if she was cheeky, like Ted said, she could be fun to hang out with.  He hadn’t met many kids his own age here.’

The story develops, with some nice tension, and the windy, unpredictable and rugged coastline of Wellington being an additional character to the story.  We are introduced to the story of the Selkie when Jessie discovers that Jake has the sealskin.

‘Do you know what a selkie is?’ she asked.

‘A selkie? No. Should I?’

‘Selkies are seal people.  The seals come on land and they shed their skins so they can walk on the earth like humans do.  When they have finished their business, they put their skins back on and become seals again.’

But that’s just a fairy story,’ said Jake, who could remember something he had heard a long time ago.  A story, set in Ireland maybe, where his ancestors had come from.

Jessie stared at him, hard.  ‘It’s not a story.  It is real.  Jake, if you have stolen a sealskin, then whoever it belongs to will be stuck in human form.’ Jake was surprised to see tears form in her eyes. ‘You must put it back.’

Unfortunately for Jake, further complications arise when his father discovers the seal skin.  Stormy, stormy times…beautifully written.  Jake’s confusing age is probably OK since that is true of teenage hood!  Sometimes they want to be children.  Sometimes, independent adults.  His stormy and unpredictable relationship with his father is also quite believable.

Sadly, I felt that the story lost its path a little about two thirds of the way through.  Without going into any detail, the character focus changes, and I think to the detriment of the story.  However, by the end it is easy to forgive this, and the denouement is thrilling.

I’m going to try this out on some 11-12 year olds and see what their perspective of the story is.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to let you know!!

 

Highly recommended.  Readers of 10+.  Some mature readers of 9yrs may also enjoy it.

 

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Filed under Children 10+, Four stars, New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, New Zealand Writer, Uncategorized

Half Brother – Kenneth Oppel

Last year I bought a book called ‘The Discursive Mind’, which argued that the difference between humans and animals is, essentially, the ability to communicate. In parts, it talked about the experiments done with sign language and chimps in the 70’s, and the difference between speech and communication.  While it was a fantastic book, and challenged me to really think, ‘Half Brother’ asked me to do the same kind of thinking, without the need for ‘expert language’, wrapped in a story that progressively asks harder and harder questions.

Half Brother
Half Brother worried me for a start.  I felt the title was …well… twee.  I worried that it would be yet another story about the special love between a boy and his pet, that ended happily ever after.  I really worried that the parents were too two dimensional, and stereotypical.  I worried that we would get so caught up in the adolescent relationship thing that it would become a boy meets girl, boy learns to be in the right group, kind of story.  I worried that Mom would never complete her PhD.  I worried that Peter would lead Ben astray.  I worried so much, I couldn’t put  the book down.  Most of all I kept worrying for Zan.  It seemed to become less and less likely that there could be any kind of solution for Zan that was believable, ethical, hopeful or humane.

Ben is an only child. He is 13 years old.  His father is a researcher, in behavioural science, in the 1970s.  Which, of course, should ring some alarm bells.  Mom is also a researcher, but has put aside her study for now, or at least is trying to work it around family and all.  One day, Ben’s parents bring home Zan, an eight day old chimpanzee.
And I have to say, that despite all my maternal worrying for everyone and everything in the book, it grew up, and walked and talked and learned and ended in the most satisfying way it could; a finely tuned orchestration of events that didn’t excuse wrong decisions, but did pay some kind of recompense, imperfectly, as it is in real life.

I highly recommend this book.  It has so much to it that it deserves more than one read.  And it deserves a bit of background reading to learn about the behavioural scientists it talks about, animal experimentation, and chimpanzees.  Also, gender equality! 😉

 

For some information on the kind of research Ben’s father was undertaking, go here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/can-chimps-converse-exchange/?pagination=false

To learn more about Kenneth Oppel, the writer, go here:  http://www.kennethoppel.ca/pages/biography.shtml

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Filed under Children 12+, humour