Thursday, April 04, 2013

Home: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.

It's not as easy as it looks.

People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.

I have learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans.

Ivan is alone in his domain, a glass-enclosed area in The Big Top Mall, his only outlet to the world a small break in the glass through which Julia passes him paper and crayons. Sometimes he eats them, but more often he uses them to create art like Julia has taught him. Ivan is an exhibit, but he is also an valued employee of the mall.  Mack the owner sells his art in the Big Top gift shop for twenty dollars,  twenty-five, framed.

Julia is the daughter of the night custodian, a girl who does her homework while her father works,  and who teaches Ivan how to do art  while her father cleans.  Julia is Ivan's friend, like Stella, the old lame elephant who performs circus tricks, three shows a day, and Bob, a stray dog who slips in to sleep on Ivan's big, warm  belly.

But things are not good at the Big Top Mall.  Business is bad, and people seem to have tired of watching Ivan eat and draw and Stella stand on one foot, not to mention  the baseball-playing chicken and the talking macaw.  Mack is worried about  paying the  bills, grumbling about how much Ivan and Stella eat.

Then Mack finds a new attraction, a cheap baby elephant named Ruby.   Ruby is small and cute, and when her picture is painted on the fading billboard by the highway where Ivan has roared for 27 years, new people begin to come to watch her and Stella, both of them happy to be with another elephant.  But when Mack tries to make Ruby learn old Stella's tricks, she refuses.  Desperate, Mack brings out The Claw, a long pole with a curved blade that pricks and rips Ruby's hide, and Ruby gives in, but the light seems to leave her eyes.

"Ivan?" Stella says in a hoarse whisper. "Ivan?"

"I'm here, Stella," I sit up abruptly. I run to a window. I can see Ruby next to Stella, sleeping.

"Ivan, I want you to promise me something," Stella says "I've never asked for a promise before because promises are forever. Especially when you're in a cage."

"Domain," I correct.

Stella doesn't say anything for a long time. "Domain," she agrees. "Never mind. I don't know what I was thinking. The pain is making me addled."

"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 here," I say.  "I promise, Stella, on my honor as a silverback."

Then Stella dies of the infection in her lame foot, and Ivan knows he must do something to keep his promise, something to get them all to that better place that Julia has told him about-- a zoo, the Place Where Humans Make Amends.

And when Julia gives him her old finger paints, Ivan has an idea. If he can create a huge mural of the mall animals together in a place of trees and open spaces, a place called HOME, one like the time and place he  remembers before he was captured, perhaps the people will understand where all the animals should be. It will be his Magnum Opus, one that perhaps will save them all. Ivan begins to paint.

Awarded the 2013 Newbery Award, Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan (HarperCollins, 2013) brings home to the reader the loneliness and alienation of captive animals kept in places like the Big Top Mall, away from others of their kind, caged in a world of cement, metal, and glass. Applegate's vivid portrayal of the inner life of captive animals is so insightful and moving that even the youngest readers will empathize with her characters and like Julia, the reader's alter ego, will understand Ivan's longings to return to something like the life for which he was born. As Kirkus Reviews says, "Utterly believable, this bittersweet story, complete with an author's note identifying the real-life Ivan, will inspire a new generation of advocates."

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