One and Only IvanThe One and Only Ivan
by Katherine Applegate

Children’s books will always have a place on my bookshelf, no matter how gray my hair gets. At their best, children’s books  offer plenty of meaty ideas for even an adult to chew on. But this meat is served in small digestible portions, not too heavy for a tired constitution, just the right size for the days when I’m feeling frazzled and in need of a simpler book.  So every year, when the children’s book awards are announced, I trot off to the library to check out bright new authors and books that I’ve never heard of. This month I’ve been reading two of the latest Newbery winners:  Bomb: The Race to Build — and Steal — the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin and The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.

Since I’m only writing about one book at a time on this blog, I’ll leave out discussion of Bomb, except to say that my dad took the book away from me and didn’t put it down till he finished it. But The One and Only Ivan is the book I’m writing about today, because it’s the one that has stuck in my thoughts. Since I work at a zoo and have a sister who is an artist, there were themes here of significant interest to me.

There are over 2400 zoos and other animal exhibitors in the United States, but only slightly over 200, or 10% of them, are accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). The zoo where I work is one of these. Taking the place I’m familiar with as a norm, I tend to forget that there may be a wide range of settings and conditions in other non-AZA zoos. The Big Top Mall in The One and Only Ivan represents one of the other possibilities.

Ivan the gorilla, Stella the elephant, and a few other random animals live in cages at a shopping mall where they serve as “attractions”.  These animals were all taken from lives they remembered in the wild, making the limitations of their present life more pointed. Since this is a children’s book, the animals can talk and tell each other their stories. Stella is an especially enthusiastic storyteller.  “Memories are precious,” says Stella, “They help tell us who we are.”  But who are you if you are out of your element?  Ivan remarks, “They have no name for what I am.”

Their owner Mack isn’t depicted as a cruel man, but as a businessman, essentially clueless about the animals’ social needs and natural inclinations. When Ivan was a young gorilla, Mack dressed him in clothes and raised him as if he were a human child, thinking that he was being good to him. When Ivan outgrew this artificial life, Mack housed him in a barren cage at the mall, a place of sameness day after day, blind to Ivan’s boredom and loneliness. Without any of his own species and desperate for bonds with other living creatures, Ivan pieced together a social life for himself from the companionship of his caged elephantine neighbor Stella, the scrappy stray mongrel dog Bob, and the janitor’s daughter Julia.

Ivan escapes from boredom through the stimulation he gets from art.  As a young gorilla in the wild, his name had been Mud, because he had loved smearing gobs of mud across surfaces. Now, in his cage at the mall, he discovers Julia’s crayons, and later the even greater pleasure of finger paints. The fascination of spreading colors on paper has the power to absorb him and carry him away from his limited life. Reflecting on his art and Stella’s storytelling, Ivan decides “I like colorful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings.”

The arrival of the baby elephant Ruby at the Big Top Mall is the catalyst for change. Before she dies, Stella asks Ivan to promise that he will get Ruby out of the mall.  But where to? A television program about a zoo inspires Ivan’s plan. How he worked out a plot to get Ruby moved to the Atlanta Zoo, and how Ivan himself was included in the move, makes up the plot of the story, a plot with a satisfying conclusion befitting a children’s book.  But beneath the exciting, wistful, comical plot twists, the story raises difficult questions about the complex relationship between humans and animals.

Two stories seem like oddly similar mirror images.  In the first story, related by Stella, Ivan hears about a human boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure in a zoo. While the humans panicked, fearful that the gorilla would attack the child, the gorilla gently stood protective watch over the boy until help came, as though the human child were a young injured gorilla. Ivan wonders why this should have so surprised the humans, why they expected the worst from the gorilla.  Later, Ruby relates a story of something that happened to her as a baby elephant in the wild. She had once fallen into a hole in the ground and been rescued by a concerned group of humans, who had saved her and returned her to her herd. Just as the humans in the first story had expected the worst of the gorilla, so Ivan listening to the second story had expected the worst of these humans. Both stories seem to say that the relationship between humans and animals doesn’t have to be based on fear. We can find ways to share space without hurting each other.

Ideally, animals belong in their own native places, which would be shared with humans who also belong there, neither harming the other. But the ideal of Eden or the Peaceable Kingdom is so far from the world we’re living in now. Humans have done so much harm to nature over the centuries, damage that can’t simply be undone overnight. There have to be safe places for animals to live until the damage is undone. Not places where they sit in forlorn cages all day, but places where they can live lives as fulfilling as can be managed until the hoped-for day when things are different “out there”. For animals which are endangered in the wild, animals with too few options left out there, zoos are arks, trying to save at-risk species as a hedge against the specter of extinction.  Our species created the problem, and we are trying to deal with the results as best we can.  “A good zoo”, Stella tells Ivan, “is how humans make amends.”

Even a good zoo isn’t the wild; it simply can’t be. But it should try to be the best alternative to the mess we’ve made. In the struggling efforts to work out compromises between wild spaces and enclosed spaces, we do best we can. Spaces must be as large and free as possible, the animal’s social needs must be met by others of the same kind, daily life must be rich and interesting. Somehow the animal’s nature has to be respected.  This book doesn’t try to convince us that we’ve found the perfect solution. Though it’s a children’s book, it doesn’t avoid facing hard questions. Stella’s death is painful, and there’s no way to hide that pain even from children.

Near the end of the book, Ivan studies his new environment and sums it up. “It’s a wild cage. I see where it begins and where it ends, the wall that says you are this and we are that and that is how it will always be. It’s not a perfect place. A perfect place would not need walls.” Though we aren’t offered an illusion of perfection, we are offered hope. There has to be hope that humans and animals, despite being “this” and “that” to each other, can somehow find ways to live together on one planet.

Meanwhile, as we all go muddling through our lives from day to day, this book also reminds us of the healing and restoring power of creative imagination. It reminds us that telling stories and making pictures helps us survive the bad times, and even make them better.