This is Ivan.
Ivan is a lowland gorilla from Zaire. For 27 years, Ivan lived in an exhibit at a circus-themed shopping center in Tacoma, Washington. He had no other gorillas for companionship, and his only exposure to the world was his view through the glass at shoppers who came to watch him. He lost his twin sister en route from Zaire, and when she died he was utterly alone. In this photo Ivan is relatively young, yet you can already see the loneliness burning behind his eyes.
Having seen Ivan in person as a kid, I always felt a connection to his story. I remember it vividly - the darkness of his enclosure, the lurid jungle-type painting on his wall, and the sad resignation in his body language. In 1994, animal advocates began campaigning for Ivan's release, and he was eventually transferred to Zoo Atlanta, where he lives today a very different life from that of his early years.
Ivan is the subject of the beautifully written new book by Katherine Applegate, The One and Only Ivan. In this novel, Applegate takes her inspiration from Ivan's story, and spins a world for Ivan that is compelling and heart-breaking, and entirely told from his point of view. Applegate populates Ivan's world with non-gorilla companions: Stella the elephant, Bob the stray dog, Julia, the daughter of the night janitor. Together this friends help Ivan survive his loneliness. Stella remembers a life before captivity, and her reminscences encourage Ivan to search the dim corners of his mind for his own memories. Bob keeps Ivan company, sneaking into Ivan's enclosure at night to sleep on Ivan's chest. Julia reaches out to Ivan, recognizing his need to create and providing him with art supplies that he uses to capture his world -- and eventually negotiate for his own new future.
Applegate tells Ivan's story as a novel-in-verse. This is a technique that can work incredibly well in the right setting -- Inside Out and Back Again, for instance -- and as a means to relate Ivan's history, it's the perfect style. In short, vivid bursts, we learn about Ivan's daily life, his loves and his heartaches. There's humor here, and pathos too, and between it all some important questions are raised about humans and what we value most. Applegate does not vilify Ivan's owner Mack, who is entirely fictional. Rather, she presents Mack as sad and confused, someone who does love Ivan but really does not know how to display his love in a way that's good for the magnificent gorilla who is under his care.
Applegate never talks down to her readers, never sugar-coats the story or implies that Ivan's situation is going to be easily resolved. The narrative brings up some incredibly important discussion points, and kids and adults alike will find themselves moved and inspired by Ivan's story. Most importantly, we learn that it's never too late for life to change for the better -- and that sometimes, when it seems impossible to hope for yourself, the hope you have for another will carry you through. The One and Only Ivan is an amazing story and a powerful addition to the canon of children's literature about animals. Read this for yourself, share it with the kiddos in your life, buy it for your library. Just don't expect to ever forget the book - or Ivan himself.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, published by HarperCollins
Sample: "I know what most humans think. They think gorillas don't have imaginations. They think gorillas don't have imaginations. They think we don't remember our pasts or ponder our futures. / Come to think of it, I suppose they have a point. Mostly I think about what is, not what could be. / I've learned not to get my hopes up."
Bonus: check out The One and Only Ivan website for more information about Ivan, the book and author Katherine Applegate