Applegate, K. (2012). The One and Only Ivan. New York: Harper.
I've taught one of Katherine Applegate's other books, Home of the Brave, four or five times over the last several years and with each rereading I'm still impressed by Kek's perspective and the level of empathy Applegate manages to create for her characters. I was super excited to pick up her latest book The One And Only Ivan.
Appetizer: Ivan is a lone silverback gorilla who has lived in a small exhibit in a mall for decades beside an elderly elephant named Stella, parrots, a macaw and a stray dog named Bob. While Ivan makes do with his small domain, more than anything, he longs to see other gorillas.
After a new young elephant named Rosy arrives at their small mall, it falls to Ivan to help take care of her, bringing up some painful memories and cementing the fact that the small band of animals need a different possibility for their future.
With some parallels to the classic Charlotte's Web and based on a true story, Applegate anthropomorphizes Ivan the silverback gorilla to capture his unique perspective, sense of longing and explore issues related to animal abuse.
At first I struggled with how humanized and well spoken Ivan was. But despite this difficulty of suspending my disbelief, I still found the text to be accessible and a quick read. Each of Ivan's vignette's is short, causing me to think, I'll read just one more...one more...oh, look, I've read fifty pages...."
In terms of topics to teach, Ivan proves himself to be quite the artist. Picasso and Rembrandt are mentioned and a teacher could use these mentions and Ivan's own discussion of art as an opportunity to discuss how art can inspire change and influence emotions. A teacher could also have students research the behavior patterns of gorillas or elephants. You could also focus on issues of animal abuse with students examining instances reported in the news, exploring laws related to the treatment of animals or maybe writing creative stories about animals that include happy endings.
With a little bit of extra work, a teacher could also discuss bias and the way the story leads the reader to see from a particular perspective. (To help draw out the way a book employs ideology to try to sway readers, I might pair The One and Only Ivan with the picturebook Vegan Is Love: Having heart and taking action by Ruby Roth which has caused a bit of controversy and is pretty overt as the title expresses about its stance toward the treatment of animals.)
This is a complex story with a lot of beautiful and poetic language that also takes on a lot of serious and difficult issues: Cruelty towards animals, removing them from their natural habitats, the experience of losing a loved one and of having to take care of others, feelings of isolation, etc.
This novel also serves as an examination of human nature. Ivan and his animal friends have both been loved and mistreated by the humans in their lives. And while humans do largely serve as the villains throughout the book, they aren't always found wanting (pages 102-104, for example).
"People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.
The names are mine, but they're not me. I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan.
Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.
Everyone knows the peels are the best part." (p. 2)
"I live in a human habitat called the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. We are conveniently located off I-95, with shows at two, four, and seven, 365 days a year." (p. 6)
"'He looks lonely,' they say.
Not long ago, a little boy stood before my glass, tears streaming down his smooth red cheeks. "He must be the loneliest gorilla in the world," he said, clutching his mother's hand.
At times like that, I wish humans could understand me the way I can understand them.
It's not so bad, I wanted to tell the little boy. With enough time, you can get used to almost anything." (pp. 21-22)
"Because she remembers everything, Stella knows many stories. I like colorful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings. But any story will do." (p. 63)
"When I say the words, they surprise me. "You want me to take care of Ruby."
Stella nods, a small gesture that makes her wince. "If she could have a life that's...different from mine. She needs a safe place, Ivan. Not--"
"Not here," I say.
It would be easier to promise to stop eating, to stop breathing, to stop being a gorilla.
"I promise, Stella," I say. "I promise it on my word as a silverback.'" (p. 112-113)
"It didn't take long for my parents to find my name. All day long, every day, I made pictures. I drew on rocks and bark and my poor mother's back.
I used the sap from leaves. I used the juice from fruit. But mostly I used mud.
And that is what they called me: Mud.
To a human, Mud might not sound like much. But to me, it was everything." (p. 125)
Tasty Rating: !!!!