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the one and only ivan

19 february 2013

Parents with kids old enough to have Katherine Applegate's Newbery Medal novel The One and Only Ivan read to them may at the same time be young enough to have read Applegate's Animorphs series of juvenile science-fiction books as teenagers. In both pulp and prestige fiction, Applegate has been interested in the intersections between animal and human consciousness.

Ivan is in the same small but hardy genre as Charlotte's Web and The Cricket in Times Square. These books are about a plucky band of animals who band together to resist or otherwise influence humans – always with the help of at least one sensitive human child.

Ivan is a gorilla who lives in a shopping-mall sideshow. His plucky animal companions include Stella the veteran elephant and Bob, the homeless dog. As in other stories from the genre, the non-humans share a language and talk frequently among themselves. They can also understand human language, but can't speak back. The rules of this fictional linguistic universe are so intuitive that (literally) a child can understand them immediately, but when you stop and think about it, they're strange.

Ivan, who is higher-verbal than most humans, and a talented graphic artist, can nevertheless neither read nor write. Early on, he complains of this deficit:

Sadly, I cannot read, although I wish I could. Reading stories would make a fine way to fill my empty hours. (8)
Ah, the Newbery hook – even if your protagonist is an ape, he must endorse the value of a good book. (To be fair, Applegate lets Ivan follow his remark with a wry joke, which I won't spoil here.)

As in Charlotte's Web, the protagonist must help other animals by writing. Ivan sets about his task, illiterate though he is, in a way that is (literally and figuratively) puzzling, but seems to make some cognitive sense. His rules for representing things in graphic form differ from humans'. But both he and the humans are clever enough ultimately to bridge the gap.

Humans come in for some sharp criticism in The One and Only Ivan, but the novel is ultimately somewhat ambivalent about them. As the animals remark, humans have their good days and bad days, their virtues and evilnesses. Animals just are: one of the nicer touches in Appelgate's novel is that Ivan cannot really break out of his instinctive nature, though his feelings, and finally his imagination too, transcend his gorillity. Humans are more plastic, and thus have greater responsibility for the roles they choose to bend themselves into. One might see The One and Only Ivan as an example of a kind of housebroken posthumanism. We identify with the animals, but the humans aren't mere villains.

Patricia Castelao's greyscale illustrations are cute; they have a Pixarish quality which hints at a possible secondary market for Ivan. Best Animated Film nominee, 2016?

Applegate, Katherine. The One and Only Ivan. Illustrated by Patricia Castelao. New York: Harper [HarperCollins], 2012.