Indulging in a spot of idle web-browsing the other day I came across a review of a book for children by Katherine Applegate called The One and Only Ivan and, given that I have been complaining about losing touch with the world of children’s literature, I paused to read it. If I’d realised sooner than I did that it was an animal book then I would probably have stopped reading, because as a general rule, unless they are of the quality of Charlotte’s Web, I don’t ‘do’ animal books. However, I didn’t register that fact until the reviewer quoted the novel’s opening lines:
I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.
It’s not as easy as it looks.
and with those three short sentences any antipathy I might have been about to feel was immediately washed away. How can anyone resist such a wonderful narrative voice? I searched high and low round our local libraries and when I finally found a copy sat down and read it in a single sitting, which is precisely what I’m going to urge you all to do, because this is a very remarkable book indeed.
Ivan, as you will have gathered, is a gorilla. Although he can just remember some aspects of the life he led in the wild with his parents and his twin sister, Tag, he has, as we discover quite late on, blocked many of his memories in order to accept the life he now leads in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where he and several other animals, including the elephant Stella, put on shows three times daily. Now a giant silverback, Ivan is a wise and patient animal, somewhat bemused by humans:
I have learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans.
Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.
It took me some time to recognise all those human sounds, to weave words into things. But I was patient.
Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.
Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans, not so much.
It seems as if Ivan has become resigned to, even accepting of, his lot. He has his friend Stella and also Bob, a small terrier-type dog, who finds his way into the enclosure that Ivan calls his domain, and sleeps every night on the great ape’s stomach. (It has a tendency to make Bob sea-sick – all that up and down as Ivan breathes – but the warmth is nice.) What is more, he has his art. Ivan loves drawing things and the small daughter of the Mall’s cleaner, Julia, who is also an artist, keeps him well supplied with the necessary materials. Perhaps nothing would ever have changed in Ivan’s life if Mack, the Mall’s owner, had not introduced a second elephant into the mix, this time a baby by the name of Ruby. And, as Ivan watches Ruby’s gentle spirit being systematically broken he comes to a momentous realisation;
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.”
And so begins Ivan’s campaign to ensure that Ruby has a better life than the one that he has known. I can’t say any more without giving too much away, which is bitter indeed, because I could happily go on quoting from this book all day. Suffice it to say that this is a novel about friendship, love, bravery, determination – I want to say about the unquenchable nature of the human spirit, except, of course, Ivan isn’t human, he is a gorilla. He is also one of the most remarkable and heroic characters that you will ever meet in literature.
It wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I discovered that it has just been given this year’s Newbery Award for Children’s Literature. As far as I’m concerned this book is well enough written, true enough to the emotional world of its characters and deep enough in its exploration of matters of far reaching consequence to hold its own in the short lists for any award you care to mention. I will be giving a copy of The One and Only Ivan to every child I know and I can only urge you to do this same, if only so that you can read it for yourself before you wrap it up and pass it on.