Sunday, 15 July 2012

review: The One and Only Ivan

by Katherine Applegate; illustrated by Patricia Castelao
HarperCollins, January 17 2012
middle-grade anthropomorphism

Ivan's a gorilla. He lives in a circus mall with Stella, an old elephant, and Bob, a stray dog, as his friends. His beloved art drawings sell for twenty dollar -- twenty-five with frame -- and he doesn't think too much about his life in the jungle. But when a baby elephant named Ruby arrives in their miniscule, run-down circus, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.
(That last line is from Goodreads' summary. It's an excellent line.)

The cover:

Beautiful. The spotlight manages to convey the circus part of the novel, even if the wooden floor is an odd choice. The illustration style -- halfway between life-like and cartoon -- is perfectly suited to the story, and the font detailing (is that an orange slice on the I?) matches the entire atmosphere of the cover.

The book:

The first thing to notice about The One and Only Ivan is the writing style. It's eloquent in the way that only sparse and simplistic prose can be; it marks Ivan's thought process as different from humans'. It's also eminently quotable:
Humans don't always seem to recognize what I've drawn. They squint, cock their heads, murmur. I'll draw a banana, a perfectly lovely banana, and they'll say, "It's a yellow airplane!" or "It's a duck without wings!"

That's all right. I'm not drawing for them. I'm drawing for me.

Mack soon realized that people will pay for a picture made by a gorilla, even if they don't know what it is. Now I draw every day. My works sell for twenty dollars apiece (twenty-five with frame) at the gift shop near my domain.

If I get tired and need a break, I eat my crayons. (p. 17 - 18)
An unprecedented aspect to this book is Ivan's upbringing. It's twisted and sad and plain odd in every sense. When compared to his childhood in the jungle, which he slowly remembers -- the remembering also playing an important part in the book -- it makes him even more likeable, even more admirable.

The animal supporting cast, Stella and Bob and Ruby, each bring a different facet of personality in contrast with Ivan's. Stella's insights into humanity (animality?) are an excellent foil for Bob's down-to-earth realism, and Ruby's young inquisitiveness as she grows into her gentle strength is delightful. Even the human supporting cast, Julia and George and Mack, are adequately developed, with Mack's ambiguity -- is he good? is he cruel? is he just trying to survive? -- offsetting the kindness of the other two.

And then the way Ivan triggers the change... it somehow encompasses all the damage done to these animals and, well, not precisely makes up for it, but turns it around. As Stella says, "A good zoo is how humans make amends." The ending.. well. I'll just quote, shall I?
I take in the wall, splattered and splashed with mud. Not much color, but lots of movement. I like it. It feels dreamy and wild, like something Julia might have made.

From my seat in the tree, I can see beyond the wall. I see giraffes and hippos. I see deer with legs like delicate twigs. I see a bear snoozing in a hollow log.

I see elephants. (p. 292 - 293)
"It feels dreamy and wild"... that's gorgeous. This is one book where I feel the happy ending fits absolutely perfectly.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5