Sunday, June 2, 2013

This year's Newbery

I usually make it a point to read the Newbery-winning novel every year. These novels never fail to entertain and to delight. I particularly like the more recent winners—Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, and Claire Vanderpool's Moon over Manifest. This year, the award went to prolific children's book writer Katherine Applegate, and her novel, The One and Only Ivan, is such a joy to read.

Now The One and Only Ivan is about talking animals, which is something I feel iffy about. There's just a hint of being unnatural about that feature. Fortunately though, the animals in the novel (the gorilla named Ivan, the mongrel named Bob, the elephants Stella and Ruby) communicate only among themselves and never with humans. In fact, one of the things I liked about the novel is how Ivan doesn't get humans, with our harsh and noisy habits. "Humans just waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot." I have to agree though—we humans speak too much.

In The One and Only Ivan, we see the dangers of confined spaces. For Ivan, Ruby, and Stella, who are kept in cages in a mall and perform daily for the mall's customers, it's such a lonely existence. Imagine being kept in a box with people staring at you whether you like it or not! It's particularly hard on Ivan and the elephants: Ivan, a mighty silverback, should be out with his troop. Instead, he is reduced to making crude paintings that sell for 20 dollars a piece. At first, he has only the aging elephant Stella and the wise-cracking dog Bob for company. But pretty soon, the popularity of Ivan and Stella has waned and the mall employees decided to add a baby elephant named Ruby to drive more people.

Spoiler alert: Stella dies. But she makes Ivan promise her that he'll take Ruby out of the depressing mall and bring her to the zoo. According to Stella, the zoo is a place where humans make amends. I feel ambivalent about the latter statement though. If we humans were to make our amends, wouldn't it be more appropriate to just return the animals in the wild? On the other hand though, I do think that the zoo is sometimes the best option that we have, provided that it's well maintained and that the animals are kept healthy.

Ivan's voice in the novel is very much in character. His words are the kind of language that you imagine gorillas to speak. Oftentimes, he's confused, pensive, and accepting of his fate. He rarely shows emotions, at least to people. He knows that it's not nice to see one angry alpha male gorilla. But we need a character transformation to propel the story, yes? And fortunately, Stella's death and Ivan's promise provide the trigger.
how i look  
I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.  
I have a gorilla's shy gaze, a gorilla's sly smile. I wear a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback. When the sun warms my back, I cast a gorilla's majestic shadow. 
In my size humans see a test of themselves. They hear fighting words on the wind, when all I'm thinking is how the late-day sun reminds me of a ripe nectarine. 
I'm mightier than any human, four hundred pounds of pure power. My body looks made for battle. My arms, outstretched, span taller than the tallest human. 
My family tree spreads wide as well. I am a great ape, and you are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins. 
I know this is troubling. 
I too find it hard to believe there is a connection across time and space, linking me to a race of ill-mannered clowns. 
Chimps. There's no excuse for them. [pp. 4-5]
So the novel's resolution focused on Ivan keeping his promise. The way Applegate enables Ivan to do so may be a bit hard to believe. Ivan crudely writes the word "home" on bits of paper, draws a rough picture of a zoo, and manages to hand them over to Julia, the emphatic daughter of a mall employee. In the end, Ivan does keep his promise, as he and Ruby end up in a zoo under the care of trained people.

The ending is a bit too clean, too sterile, for my taste. But I understand that The One and Only Ivan is a novel for children. Children should know that things should get done, promises be kept, animals be cared for, and people be more resilient and persevering. After all, the way we treat animals, or all living things for that matter, is a reflection of how much we put value into them.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything that's won the Newbery.
  2. You love these cousins of ours.
  3. You fear enclosed spaces.

2 comments:

Olivr said...

good catch.

Peter S. said...

Thanks, Olivr!