What Hooked Me? —The One And Only Ivan (Author Katherine Applegate)

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This month WWAT looks at Katherin Applegate’s wonderful The One and Only Ivan.

Jess: I was hooked by the John Newbery Medal on the front cover. My childhood favorite, The Bridge to Terabithia was awarded The Newbery Medal in 1978. Because of my favorite book and many others, it is hard for me to walk past a Newbery Medal or Newbery Honor without flipping through. Some of my recent favorite Newbery Award winners are Wolf Hollow, Roller Girl, Echo, Doll Bones, Three Times Lucky, The Wednesday Wars, The Graveyard Book, and this year’s winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.  

The Newbery is given by the Association For Library Service to Children (ALSC). The recipient is considered the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children from the previous year.  In 2013, when The One and Only Ivan won, the committee chair, Steven Engelfried said, “Katherine Applegate gives readers a unique and unforgettable gorilla’s-eye-view of the world that challenges the way we look at animals and at ourselves.”

John: What hooked me was the poetry of language. Now, of course, The One and Only Ivan is not a novel in verse. But the beauty in the prose truly does border on poetry. What Katherine Applegate really impressed me with is the way she not only wrote such an artistic perspective, but did so through the mind/eyes of a gorilla and made it feel authentic–if such a thing is possible. At the very least, she gave Ivan such a tremendous voice–one that embodied isolation, wisdom, and insight while conveying the naïveté of one who has very little experience outside the four walls of Ivan’s domain/cage. Examples such as:  “Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows the peels are the best part.” Both beautiful and insightful. Or “Her eyes hold the pale moon in them, the way a still pond holds stars.” So, so, so visually concrete. “Now I draw every day. … If I get tired and need a break, I eat my crayons.” Touching and yet wonderfully funny and so very gorilla. Poetry–pure poetry. Other books that master the beauty of the written word in prose are middle-grade PAX by Sara Pennypacker and young adults The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater and Small Damages by Beth Kephart.

Megan: What can I say? I was hooked by the animal angle! Back in the day, I lived with my family on eight acres of land. We had three horses, four dogs, two guinea pigs, one house cat, and an unknown number of barn cats (who brought a lot of nice gifts to our doorstep, such as dead rabbits, snakes, and mice). Now, many years later, one of my favorite places to visit is the zoo. There is something that just warms me and calms me when I watch animals, so The One and Only Ivan certainly fed that passion.

Of course, the anthropomorphic angle is always a tough one. We certainly have some favorite books with that concept–Charlotte’s Web, Ralph and the Motorcycle, etc–but there’s really not too many of these stories for middle grade on up. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to authentically balance our humanity with the thoughts and actions of animals. No matter the challenge, however, I love the way Applegate made Ivan into a gorilla I want to meet. He is an unlikely hero, changing a situation that seems impossible through his own creativity, and even if we must suspend our logic to believe it, it brings out one truly important universal truth: if we put our mind to it, we can make the world a better place for us, our friends, and all the people around us.


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