Friday, March 23, 2012

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Ya gotta love Ivan.

He’s big. He’s hairy. He’s completely loveable. Did I mention that he’s a four hundred pound silverback gorilla? Yep, 400 pounds... a powerhouse of pure muscle. Only problem is that Ivan’s big body is housed in a little cage with three glass walls that sits off the highway at a circus-themed mall. You would think Ivan would be depressed, wouldn’t you? But he has lived in this mall for 27 years and accepts his situation. His dry humor knuckle walks through this story from his observations of humans to his hilarious disgust of certain members of his family tree, "Chimps,” he says, “…there’s no excuse for them.”

I love this line.

It makes me think of my brothers and sisters. Ivan would have observed us as ill-mannered chimps with ape-like appetites chaotically scampering around our house. Ivan might have liked the chaos, once he got over the disgust of our chimp-like behavior. Not that he would say anything out loud. Yes, Ivan, is a well-mannered ape. When children spit and throw pebbles at him, he thinks, "slimy chimps" and then apologizes because his mother would have been ashamed of him. Well, maybe NOT so well-mannered. He did chuck a poop ball (called me-balls) at the “spit-pebble children” that splatted on the glass separating them from him. Sometimes, he thinks, a cage has its advantages.

Ya gotta love Ivan. He’s pretty funny.

Ivan eats crayons, books (they taste like termites), paints, breaks glasses, doesn't have a great memory, lets Bob sleep on his stomach, and makes perceptive observations. He says that humans "chatter like chimps crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say," and waste words, "...they toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows that banana peels are the best part."

Ivan’s voice is the banana peel in this story. He tells about his situation in a non-emotional, practical way. Ivan doesn't feel sorry for himself. He doesn't think too far ahead, "I don't think about where I am, about yesterday or tomorrow." He isn’t angry. He's resigned. Remember, he's spent 27 years in this mall with a TV as his main piece of furniture. He approaches one day at a time with his best friends, Stella, the elephant with an injured foot that won’t heal; and Bob, the homeless dog who doesn’t trust humans. Stella and Bob must perform in the circus show each day. Mack, the mall owner, worries about business slacking and buys a baby elephant, Ruby. Ruby draws the crowds, but Mack is mad. Ruby is not learning the circus routine fast enough. When Mack threatens Ruby with a claw-stick and abuses her with long days of training, Ivan changes. He no longer accepts his situation, but must protect Ruby. He wants to give Ruby a better life. He wants to give himself a better life. He wants a change so bad that he goes from calling his home a "domain" to a "cage" to telling Ruby that she must leave this "prison." As he starts to work on his rescue plan, ideas and dreams start to blossom in his thoughts like never before.

Ivan's restrained voice is one of loneliness, humor, and thoughtfulness toward his friends and way of life that brings home the author's message of animal abuse with a punch. We like Ivan. We don't want to see him lonely or mistreated. Ivan reminds me of Anthony Browne's gorilla in the picture book, Little Beauty. That, too, is a story about a captive gorilla that makes a friend with a kitten because he's lonely. Both stories have happy endings but the fact remains that they are still in captivity and at the mercy of humans whose behavior is good and bad.

Applegate’s sentence structure is interesting and strengthens Ivan’s character. It seems fitting that a gorilla would think in short, simple verses; however, the sentences contain complex thoughts and delicious word choices, "I  like colorful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings." Applegate doesn't have Ivan personify any abstract notions, but emotionally moves the story along through Ivan's thinking and conversations that show the abuse humans have inflicted on the circus mall animals. Even Mack was once good and cared about Ivan before becoming jaded. When Ivan first goes through the door to the zoo he says, “I’m not ready for this. I’m not ready to be a silverback. I’m Ivan, just Ivan. Only Ivan.” Ivan describes himself as "Only Ivan" in the first chapter and is scared to be the "Mighty Ivan." He's scared to take that first step toward his new life. The plot is predictable with Stella's injury and that the circus mall will close. What isn't predictable is Stella's words of wisdom that help Ivan change and how Ivan's plan comes to fruition. There are some wonderful twists in the plot.

This story has violence shown to animals but most is secondhand. The firsthand violence is mainly experienced through Ruby learning the circus performance and Stella's neglect. Ruby's never actually hit with the nasty claw-stick but all the animals are distressed when their friends are abused either physically or psychologically. Humans, have the ultimate power in Applegate's story. Mack is the human who makes bad choices, while Julia and George are the humans who make good choices. Ivan has to rely on Julia to help him because he is helpless to cause change solely on his own. This brings up a whole set of questions about how to treat animals in an ethical way. What is going too far? Are zoos really the best places for animals? Applegate forces us to look inside and outside ourselves to think about how we treat  animals and how much we will sacrifice to do the right thing.  A moving story that will generate great discussions.

A must read.

Reading Level 4.0
5 out of 5 Smileys

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