Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review - "The One and Only Ivan"

Animal books.  I can take them or leave them, frankly.  I’m not sure there’s a single one that I absolutely love, even beautiful, wonderful books like Charlotte’s Web, Black Beauty or The Underneath.  I went through a brief phase in my youth when I read anything Marguerite Henry wrote about horses (my mother is a horsewoman, and it felt like it must be in my blood).  I found that I preferred books written from the animal’s point of view, like Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, rather than books that were simply about animals.  But all the same, I liked them, certainly, but love eluded me.    Imagine my surprise then, when Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan crossed my desk and I found myself inexplicably falling in love.
 Ivan is a silverback gorilla.  He lives in a “domain” at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, along with Stella the elephant, Bob the dog (a stray), and a few other small animals.  They are all kept by a man named Mack, who runs the pseudo-circus several times a day to an ever dwindling number of attendees.  Ivan is settled into this life.  He’s not particularly happy, but nor is he particularly unhappy.  Until one day, a new baby elephant named Ruby joins the group, and Ivan’s world view begins to expand.  He begins to understand what it means to want to be free, to need to be free, and he hatches a plan to get Ruby to safety and change all of their lives.
 I waited a long time to read The One and Only Ivan.  It was released in January of this year, and only came to me in mid-April.  All the while, I kept hearing wonderful things.  Beautiful!  Poetic!  Newbery worthy!  It’s a lot of pressure to put on a book.  Compound that pressure by several months of waiting for a book to arrive, and you’ll get an idea of my mindset when I sat down to read Ivan.  But after one page, I knew I was in for something special.  “I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.  It’s not as easy as it looks.”  These words are all you find on the first page, under the title “hello” and above a beautiful black and white (with shades of grey) illustration by Patricia Castelao.  The gorilla’s face drew me in, and his words, stark and powerful, gave me a glimpse on the inside.  I wanted to know more about Ivan, and about why his life was not so easy.
 Lucky for me, Ivan’s narration fills the book to the brim with wisdom, humor and strength.  He’s a fully-fledged character, with understandable motivations and desires.  Secondary characters like Bob the stray dog are drawn with such precision, it would be easy to see them as the star of their very own book (though perhaps not one as good as Ivan’s).  And the story.  How do I write about the story without giving anything away?  Suffice to say, Applegate could very easily have fallen into a maudlin trap of sentimentality, but I’m happy to report that nothing of the kind occurs.  There are definitely moments that pull at your heartstrings, but they happen in such plain spoken, honest ways, related to us by Ivan, that it never feels forced or overdrawn.
 I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Castelao’s illustrations.  They are used sparingly, and to great effect, usually to underscore a particularly expressive moment.  The cover illustration had me worried at first, because the image comes across just a little too cute.  Ruby the elephant feels anthropomorphized, and yeah, just a little too cute.  But Castelao’s inside illustrations are gorgeous and evocative, everything an author could want from an illustrator.
 Is this book a Newbery contender?  It certainly should be.  Will it win?  I don’t know.  The last animal related book to win was The Tale of Despereaux in 2004 (a book which breaks my ‘I don’t love animal books’ rule, but that’s because it’s not just about Despereaux, which is cheating perhaps, but my game, my rules).  And before that, you have to go back to 1992 and Shiloh.  So I would say the odds are stacked against it somewhat.  But it’s a beautiful book that’s bound to be remembered at the end of the year, and remembered fondly.
 The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
2012, Harper Collins
Final copy sent from publisher for review

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