Monday, March 24, 2014

"The One and Only Ivan"

            I’m going to brag for a second.  It’s not a big thing to brag about, but I thought it was pretty awesome when it happened.  In 2013, when it was announced that Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan won the Newbery Award, I was stoked.  Why, you ask?  I was excited because it is the only time I have ever read the Newbery Award winner before it was announced.  I immediately wanted to tell everyone I knew that the book had won and that I had read it, but then I remembered that no one actually cared whether or not I had read it before.  Henceforth this self-congratulatory blog post introduction, where you learn that for a brief moment in time, Miss Weaver was all caught up on what was new and hip in the children’s literature world.

    The One and Only Ivan (Published 2012) by Katherine Applegate is a story about a gorilla named Ivan, told from his point of view.  Ivan has been living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for 9,876 days—27 years.  He may not have grass, other gorillas, or any real freedom to speak of, but it’s not so bad.  As he puts it, “With enough time, you can get used to almost anything”(p.22).  After all, he has his elephant friend Stella, his dog friend Bob, and even a human friend, Julia.  Julia is an artist, like himself, and most of the time she is the only one who can recognize what Ivan is drawing (Is it really so hard to notice that it is a beetle, folks?)  All of this complacency about his surroundings changes, however, with the arrival of Ruby, a baby elephant.  Stella is dying, and she doesn’t want Ruby to have the life that she and Ivan are living.  Ivan makes Stella a promise that he will take care of Ruby, and we follow Ivan as he tries to use his ability to paint to help get Ruby to a zoo, which is, after all, “How humans make amends.”(p.64).

            Every story has its spark in reality, whether it be a dream, an experience, or a real-life event.  This story is based off of a real gorilla, and that just adds to the incredible aspect of this story.  The website for The One and Only Ivan tells the story of the real Ivan.  He really was taken as an infant from his home, where the female gorilla with him died on the way.  He lived in a human home until he became too “unmanageable.”  After that, he lived in the B & I Circus Store in Tacoma, Washington, for 27 years.  27 years.  This gorilla spent more time alone in a cage than I have been alive—it’s a sobering thought.  After protests following a National Geographic special entitled “The Urban Jungle”, he was finally transferred to a zoo.  Ivan died in August of last year, several months after his story won the Newbery Award.  I can’t help but think Katherine Applegate did a great job in removing herself as a writer to let the voice of this animal shine through.  My children and I read an article and watched a video about Ivan after we read the story together, and it remains one of their favorite stories from this year.

            Most of the books that win the Newbery Medal are typically for children who are in about middle school.  I feel that this book is definitely a book that could be understood and enjoyed by children in 4th and 5th grade.  As a matter of fact, it is actually a Virginia Reader’s Choice book for 4th and 5th grade this year.  So what goes into choosing a Newbery Award winner?  If you want to see all the criteria, you can visit the American Library Association’s(ALA) page on it.  I will highlight some of the key points that I think really apply to this story.  For starters, the Newbery Award is given each year, “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”  But what makes it distinguished?  According to the ALA, committee members should consider the following: “interpretation of the theme or concept; presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization; development of plot; delineation of characters; delineation of setting; and appropriateness of style.”  Of all of these considerations, I feel that The One and Only Ivan’s greatest success is in its delineation of characters.

            I could write about how great all of the characters are, but some of you are already nodding off while you read this, so I will limit my talk to the two characters who most interested me: Mack and Ivan.  Reading this book immediately after I read and blogged about the I Survived book reminds me of something very important.  Children need books that are accessible to them on their level, and I feel that the plot and characters of I Survived are just that.  The characters in Ivan, however, are so much deeper and richer and it reminds me that our children also need exposure to these kinds of stories.  Also is too weak a word: our children desperately need exposure to stories with high literary quality.

            While reading Ivan’s story, I felt like it was him speaking.  I know that gorillas cannot write or speak, but if they could, I have a feeling it would be like this.  From the very beginning of the story, we are confronted with Ivan’s loneliness.  In the chapter entitled “hello” on the first page, Ivan says, “I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.  It’s not as easy as it looks.”  Throughout the story, the chapters are very short, reflecting Ivan’s desire to not overuse words.  He says that, “Humans waste words.  They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot”(p.2).  Ivan is not like this.  In fact, so much of Ivan’s character is in what he does not say, rather than what he does say to the reader.  Before Ruby shows up, Ivan refuses to remember what his life was like beforehand.  It is too painful, too much for him to remember.  When Ruby shows up, she breaks open something inside of him and for good or bad, he remembers his past.  He remembers how they shot his mother and then his father, cutting off their heads, arms, and legs.  He remembers how the hunters captured his sister and him, and that he somehow “knew that in order to live, I had to let my old life die”(p.129).  Ivan has spent 27 years of his life trying to act like he thinks he is supposed to act in the context of other humans, all the while forgetting about his true role as a silverback.

            Ivan’s character shifts when Ruby comes.  As mentioned before, he begins to remember the life that he wanted to forget.  More than that, however, is that he finally has something to fight for in Ruby.  He no longer sees his home in the mall as a “domain” but as the cage that it really is for him and the rest of the animals.  All he has is his painting, and he uses this to try and save Ruby.  Ivan was taken away from his home when he was just a boy and his father was the silverback, the leader of the clan.  When Ruby arrives, he finally has someone to protect.  My favorite scene of the whole novel is when Ivan presents the pictures to Julia and she does not understand what he is trying to say at first.  The Ivan before Ruby would have let it go, because he never got mad.  This Ivan, though, has to do something.  Ivan says, “Often, when visitors come to see me, they beat their hands against their puny chests, pretending to be me.  They pound away, soundless as the wet wings of a new butterfly.  The chest beating of a mad gorilla is not something you ever want to hear… A real chest beating sends the whole jungle running, as if the sky has broken open, as if men with guns are near”(p.207).  This is the first time in Ivan’s whole life when he has mustered the strength to be the silverback he was born to become.  Why, you ask?  As he says, “I can’t let Ruby be another One and Only”(p.206).  I have never loved a gorilla more, nor have I ever felt the presence of an author as little as I did when I read The One and Only Ivan.  When you can literally make yourself disappear from the text and let a talking gorilla become the writer, you know that there is something special on your hands.

            I debated whether or not to talk about Stella or Mack as the other character I chose to illustrate the wonderful job Katherine Applegate did with character development.  I chose Mack because he is the character with more layers to him.  Stella is sweet, wise, and kind, while Mack has character traits that seem at odds with one another.  You want to hate Mack.  In a way, you kind of have to hate him because he is the reason that Ivan has been locked in a cage for 27 years.  Yet, somehow, you don’t leave this novel thinking that Mack got what was coming to him.  You leave it feeling sorry for him.  Don’t get me wrong, this is the same man who does not want to pay for a vet to come visit Stella, the same man who carries a claw stick while training Ruby, and the same man who put Ivan in the mall in the first place.  There is more to him, though, than just those things. The first hint we get that Mack might be more three-dimensional is when he gives money to George.  After asking how George’s ailing wife is doing, “Mack starts to leave, then pauses.  He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a crumpled green bill, and presses it into George’s hand.  ‘Here… buy the kid some more crayons’”(p.50).  This doesn’t really go along with the Mack that we have known.  The Mack we know is a money-hungry, unsympathetic man.  In the end, though, what really gets me about Mack is his love for Ivan.  He makes so many wrong choices, but we know that he loves Ivan.  The night before Ivan leaves, Mack comes into Ivan’s domain and “the full moon falls on his sagging shoulders.  He seems smaller somehow”(p.254).  He pulls out a picture of Ivan from when Ivan was younger, and spends a minute reminiscing about the times they spent together.  Then, Mack says “’I’m going to miss you Ivan”(p.256) before leaving.  As it is through the whole story, this scene is told simplistically, but you are left with a weight on your shoulders that is not your own.  You find yourself carrying the burden of Mack, who has made all the wrong choices for so long and who is now paying the price for those choices.  That scene, my friends, is the difference between a children’s book and an award-winning children’s book.

I don’t often try things that I think I will fail at, and so I typically end up doing pretty well at things that I try.  It’s not something I’m proud of, this fear of failure, and that actually extends to my reading.  I don’t often talk about my theories unless I feel certain of them.  I’m trying to keep in my mind my children and the fact that I ask them to do things they aren’t comfortable with all time.  I have an idea about Ivan that I want to be brave and try out.  After all, that’s what Ivan did in the end, isn’t it?

My theory is that throughout the novel, Katherine Applegate purposefully sets up this dichotomy between animals and humans, only to continuously thwart it.  She wants us to see that humans and animals have a great deal in common, but that they are not the same and should not be treated as such.  For example, there is a line that comes up twice in the book when Ivan is describing his domain in the mall and then later when he sees a commercial.  Talking about the glass that separates them, he says, “The glass says you are this and we are that and that is how it will always be”(p.14).  This separation between animal and human almost seems like it gives humans the right to treat them as mere animals unworthy of respect.  Of course, Katherine Applegate tears down this separation with lines like, “Growing up gorilla is just like any other kind of growing up.  You make mistakes.  You play.  You learn.  You do it all over again”(p. 127).  My theory is that Katherine Applegate shows us this separation, and then sameness, to instill in us that these creatures are different, be we owe them respect.  Gorillas should not be paraded around in baseball caps and taken to movie theaters. Instead, gorillas should be given the chance to live their lives like nature intended.

The One and Only Ivan is a book that deserves many more pages than what I can give it.  I know that I love a book when I feel like I can never do it justice in a blog post, not matter how many words I write about it.  This is a story about a gorilla, but like any good story, it is so much more than the words on the page.  It is a story about animals, humans, and humanity living up to its greatest capacity.  Your children deserve a story like this.
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