‘The One and Only Ivan’

Children’s book about Zoo Atlanta gorilla wins Newbery Medal
Ivan, a 50-year-old western lowland gorilla, enjoys a banana in his habitat at Zoo Atlanta Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012.

Credit: Bita Honarvar

Credit: Bita Honarvar

Ivan, a 50-year-old western lowland gorilla, enjoys a banana in his habitat at Zoo Atlanta Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012.

“I am Ivan

I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.”

So begins journey into the mind of the late celebrity gorilla, Ivan, a star at Zoo Atlanta until his death last August.

As we learn in the children’s book “The One and Only Ivan,” by Katherine Applegate, Ivan is strong, sensitive and patient.

“Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape,” says Ivan. “Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans not so much.”

Ivan, a 50-year-old western lowland gorilla, appears to be scratching his chin in thought as he sits in his habitat at Zoo Atlanta Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012.

Credit: Bita Honarvar

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Credit: Bita Honarvar

Ivan must be patient because his home is in a concrete, glass and metal box in a shopping mall by the highway, and the scenery never changes.

A winner of this year’s Newbery Medal, the highest honor in children’s literature, Applegate’s novel for ages 8-12 is fiction. But it mirrors the life of the real Ivan, who, before coming to Atlanta, lived almost 28 years in solitary confinement, in a cage in a circus-themed shopping mall near Tacoma, Wash.

While her book has important things to say about the real world, including the treatment of wild animals, the power of art and the importance of promises, it is also a powerful work of imagination, conjuring the thoughts of a species only a few branches away on the evolutionary tree.

Ivan is full of opinions about the animals and people who live in his “domain,” but he doesn’t dwell on his problems. “Gorillas are not complainers,” Ivan says. “We’re dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.”

Ivan uses his strongest sense to sniff out information, especially when it seems his prison sentence might end:

“Humans always smell odd when change is in the air,” he muses. “Like rotten meat, with a hint of papaya.”

Applegate is the author and co-author of a host of children’s and middle-grade books — there are 35 million books from her “Animorphs” series in print. In 1993, she read a story from the New York Times about the shopping mall gorilla. She knew Ivan’s tragic youth and midlife liberation made for a story worthy of Dickens. But she put off writing it.

Perhaps it was easier to write fiction than the factual exercise she had in mind for Ivan. Helplessly prolific, she kept creating more franchises: a dozen books in the “Everworld” series (between 1999 and 2001); 14 books in the “Remnants” series (from 2001 to 2003); and 28 books in the “Making Out” series.

All along Ivan sat on the back burner, presenting just enough difficulties to remain postponeable.

“The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate

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“I was reluctant to tackle it because I wanted to approach it semi-journalistically,” said Applegate, 56, speaking from her home in Tiburon, Calif., north of San Francisco. But sticking with the facts wouldn’t let her tell the whole story.

Eventually she began looking to escape the book series merry-go-round. “I decided I was getting up there, getting a little long in the tooth,” she said, “and I wanted to take the risk of writing a single title that had a beginning and a middle and an end. And it was frightening.”

Her editor, Anne Hoppe, suggested returning to Ivan’s story, but taking the liberties that fiction affords, primarily, the opportunity to go inside Ivan’s thoughts.

“I do think it’s great to imagine what’s going on behind those piercing eyes,” Applegate said.

The result of that imagining is “The One and Only Ivan,” published last year, with a central character as captivating as the arachnid heroine in “Charlotte’s Web.” Ivan is dignified and patient, and he has the soul of an artist. He is drawn into action when he makes himself responsible for the welfare of another resident of the “Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade,” a baby elephant named Ruby.

Applegate tells Ivan’s story in short chapters with memorable epigrammatic lines. She establishes an indelible character, which is also an act of imagination, because Ivan died before Applegate ever had a chance to meet him. She never saw him in Tacoma, and she once made a special trip to see him in Atlanta, but it was rainy, and Ivan never liked to get his feet wet, so he stayed inside.

Ivan, one of Zoo Atlanta's resident silverback gorillas, died during a medical exam, Monday, Aug. 20, 2012. .

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Yet she came to Atlanta for his funeral service and was amazed by the outpouring of affection from his fans.

“After he passed away, Ivan’s keeper sent me a close-up photo of his face, and his eyes are piercing and intelligent and yet so beyond our reach,” she said. “That’s the fascinating thing about the space between us and animals.”

In real life, endings are rarely happily ever after, and in “The One and Only Ivan,” the final chapter is bittersweet. But the emphasis is on the sweet, which is how Applegate feels about the fate of the real Ivan. Though he never truly integrated with the Zoo Atlanta gorilla population, he had a chance to make friends and to live in a natural habitat.

“It wasn’t a perfect ending, but it was so much better than it might have been,” she said. “Zoo Atlanta is an amazing zoo, and he could not have ended up in a better place. That was a great thing.”

The George Eliot quote that Applegate uses in the frontispiece of her book sums up the story of Ivan: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”


“The One and Only Ivan”

Katherine Applegate

Harper Collins Publishers

$16.99, 304 pages