Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate

If you haven’t yet read 2013 Newbery Medal winning The One and Only Ivan, you are missing what many consider a modern classic of children’s literature. It’s a powerful story of friendship and protection and identity and freedom and so much more.

Author Katherine Applegate has now added to Ivan’s story, or rather, given readers the true story behind the fictionalized version in Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla. The book starts with the gorilla’s birth “in leafy calm, in gentle arms.” It tells how the gorilla didn’t learn about humans until it was too late, when poachers stole them from their jungle home. The book describes how Ivan, named in a contest, was raised as a human - sleeping in a bed, going to baseball games, and riding a motorcycle. Eventually Ivan grew beyond his owners’ ability to care for him.

Ivan was moved to a cage in a shopping mall where he became an oddity, an attraction, a way to draw customers. After nineteen pages of Ivan’s life before the mall, only six pages are devoted to Ivan’s life at the mall, but readers will clearly understand the bleak existence. He had a tire and a TV. He sometimes finger-painted. Most of his time was spent watching people watch him. The book concludes with eleven pages on his life after the mall.

This lyrical, nonfiction retelling of Ivan’s story is at times touching and heartbreaking and fulfilling. But I can’t get beyond the page breakdown. Twenty-seven years of Ivan’s life can be covered in only six pages? His life before the B & I Shopping Center - two lives, really - gets nineteen pages. Part of it covers a life of hoots, grunts, and chest-beats, a life with wrestling and chasing and swinging. The other part covers his life of diapers and clothes and a human family. Then twenty-seven years fly by in six pages? How miserable those twenty-seven years must have been!

If this book is read as a companion to The One and Only Ivan, this makes sense. Readers will be fully aware of Ivan’s bleak existence at the B & I Shopping Center (or the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade). Devoting the majority of the book to Ivan’s life before and after the mall gives readers a better understanding of his life as a whole.

While I loved this book, it was not the book I expected. I was looking for straight-up nonfiction like dates, timelines, photographs, and comparisons between factual Ivan and fictional Ivan. There are numerous online resources like Ivan's Wikipedia page, the description of Ivan’s life at Zoo Atlanta, background information from Katherine Applegate’s site, a variety of images of Ivan, and even the videos below, and I thought the book would bring all that information together.

Is it possible to be disappointed that a book was not what you expected yet not be disappointed in the book itself?

I’ll settle for online research. That’s fine. I’m glad we have this book. Charts and graphs and diagrams and timelines could never communicate the full range of emotions readers experience from this heart-felt look at Ivan’s life.

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