I’m not one for animal stories. I wasn’t inspired by Black Beauty, wasn’t enthralled by Watership Down. And so, when this one first came out, even though it was getting glowing reviews, I passed it by.
Then, I got the amazing luck to have it land on the Cybils Middle Grade Science Fiction/Fantasy list, for which I’m a first-round judge. See, even though it’s not a fantasy in the “traditional” sense, it is a fantastical novel (much like Black Beauty or Watership Down), looking into the thoughts of an animal, humanizing them. Perhaps they are actually thinking and acting that way, but perhaps not, as well. Therefore, not “realistic” fiction.
That said, I’m so grateful I was encouraged to read it. Because it’s an amazing novel.
Slim, written not in verse but rather in short sentences and chapters, it’s a story told by a gorilla, Ivan, in captivity. He’s not what you would call a “happy” gorilla, but he’s not an especially sad one either. Because his family was killed and he was sold when he was a baby, he doesn’t really know anything other than captivity. He does have some friends: he often stays up nights talking to his neighbor, an old circus elephant, and this mutt of a dog. Additionally, he has something of a relationship with Julia, the daughter of the nighttime janitor in the mall where Ivan lives.
He probably would have spent the rest of his life in his “domain,” having his owner sell Ivan’s finger paintings for $20, until one day, when his owner buys a baby elephant, Ruby. Suddenly, Ivan has someone to protect. And he realizes that there could be more to his life, and Ruby, at least, deserves more.
Based on the life of the real Ivan (who recently passed away), it’s a simple novel, something a young reader could understand. But its simplicity belies its power: Applegate drew me into Ivan’s world, filled me with sympathy and love for these animals who only want to live a decent life. And yes, I did cry at the end.
It’s about time I read it. Beautiful.