Ivan the gorilla’s real life mirrored in children’s book

  • Sunday, February 24, 2013 2:46pm
  • Life

“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, who lived almost 28 years in solitary confinement in a cage in a circus-themed shopping mall near Tacoma, before being “retired” to Zoo Atlanta, where he died last August.

As we learn in the children’s book, “The One and Only Ivan,” by Katherine Applegate ($16.99), Ivan is strong, sensitive and patient.

“Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape,” Ivan says. “Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans not so much.” Ivan must be patient because his home is 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 to 12 is fiction, but it mirrors the life of the real Ivan.

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 in 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.

“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.

Her editor, Anne Hoppe, suggested 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.

Ivan died before Applegate 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.

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.

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