Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

What is it about children's books and animal cruelty? Have you ever noticed how many children's books have been written about dying animals? When I was in grade school, I hated books about animals. WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, CHARLOTTE'S WEB . . . I never understood why kids would want to read sad books about animals. Maybe it was because we were never animal people in my family. Pets were messy, a lot of work, and we were a sensitive bunch and I think deep down, just never wanted to get to know something so cute and cuddly that was going to die long before us.

I bring this up because I should have known what was coming in THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. I should have seen the sad looking animals on the front cover and stayed far away. I should have read the blurb on the jacket by none other than Kathi Appelt, author of THE UNDERNEATH for crying out loud, and put this book back on the shelf. But I had to give it a try . . . there's just something about distinguished literature for children and sad animals . . .

Ivan is a mighty gorilla, trapped in a small circus (that doubles as a shopping mall) with an aging elephant, a stray dog, and a new baby elephant. Ivan is quite the artist and people pay $25 for his artwork (which is usually just of a banana). When Ruby, a baby elephant joins the troupe and begins asking questions about their existence, Ivan finds himself promising her a better life, unaware of how he can provide one for her. Sad, sad animals ensue . . .

As I mentioned earlier, the back of this novel boasts a quote from Kathi Appelt, author of the brilliant THE UNDERNEATH, and I find it rather fitting because of all the children's novels I've read in recent years, the one that screams comparison the most, is THE UNDERNEATH. Everything in THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is so darn sad. Depressingly sad. When the details of Ivan's background are brought to light, I found myself needing to put the book down and take a break, just as I did with Appelt's novel at times.

Ivan narrates this book in a sort of verse-prose that is both simple and compelling at the same time. It's quite the feat by author Katherine Applegate. Ivan is an artist at heart and there's only so much art he can make inside the walls of his domain. The fact that he's an artist made it easier to stomach some of the beautiful language coming out of the mouth of this gorilla. But at times, I couldn't suspend my disbelief to the extreme because the figurative language was pretty for the sake of being pretty, and not something a gorilla, even this gorilla, would ever come up with. The wordiness of the verse took away from the poignancy of the story at times for me, oddly enough. Quite often, this style of writing is supposed to bring out the poignancy of stories.

If Applegate's novel were to come away with some Newbery hardware this winter, I can't say that I would be too surprised. However I can't believe that there isn't better written, more distinguished novels, out there for kids this year. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is a very good book, don't get me wrong. It's a very meaningful book, but it's a sappy sort of book that oozes Newbery . . . sad animals, dying animals, friendship and art, uplifting message (albeit, with an over the top, happy, somewhat cliched ending) . . . Maybe this is why I found myself not rooting for it in the end. Because it wouldn't surprise me if everyone else is.

Final Grade: B

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