In my analysis of The One And Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, a winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal, I aim to point out several key elements of the novel that made it a winner.
Character analysis and plot.
The Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, a small indoor circus-type animal attraction, located next to a major highway, was once very profitable but as the story unfolds is run-down and losing money. Ivan, the hero, a mighty silverback gorilla, passive and philosophical in his approach to life, lives in a cage constructed of glass, metal, and cement inside a mall along with his companions.
- Stella, the elephant, old wise and maternal, is well-versed in the cruelty inflicted on animals by humans (scars on her legs and stories to tell), yet has an understanding of their kinder side as well.
- Ruby, the baby elephant, represents innocence, hope, and longing.
- Bob the street smart dog, honest but blunt, blurts out what everyone else is thinking but unwilling to say.
- George the janitor, and his ten-year old daughter Julia, represent those who have good intentions, but are powerless to make any major social or political changes on their own, or so they think.
- Mack, the villain and owner of the mall, a tired old man who bought Ivan as a baby and raised him like a son until he got too big to be a human, seems to have lost his humanity over time.
- The character of the zookeeper, Maya, materializes at the same time Ivan’s dream of living in a zoo materializes.
When Stella dies, she makes Ivan agree to keep Ruby safe. Ivan develops a plan to get her rescued and taken to a zoo. The death of his best friend and the promise he made to protect someone else finally make him snap. For the first time he refers to his domain as a cage. He finally remembers the most heart-wrenching part of his original capture — the death of his parents and their hands and feet getting cut off (to be sold as ashtrays or other souvenirs!)
He devises a plan; he creates lots and lots of paintings. He carries out the plan; with some coaxing, chest-beating, and all-around acting like a wild gorilla (which he has not done since he was a baby), he shows his artwork to George and Julia who paste them up on the billboard. Julia calls the newspaper. At first the publicity only serves to make more money for Mack. But then the protesters come. Then the health inspector comes. Before you know it, people from the zoo come.
As Ivan is first transitioned to the zoo, he is afraid. He can barely remember the last time he was with any of his own species. But he musters up the courage and is soon acting like a real gorilla with his new family. He makes peace with himself when Maya shows him a video of Ruby in her new habitat, proof that he lived up to his promise made to Stella.
Lastly, Julia, Bob, and George come to visit. George starts a new job with the zoo in a month. Bob is no longer homeless. Ivan now has closure.
The setting is key to the story.
Being located next to a major highway is significant because it allows the addition of the billboard which draws the eventual attention of activists and zoo officials to the mall. Throughout the story, we are given hints and clues as to the mistreatment and neglect of the animals as it pertains to the setting. The pool is dirty, the hay is dirty, and the brown carrot on the floor implies rotting food. There are occasional rats and insects. The TV set replaces a gorilla companion for Ivan.
As evidenced by this mistreatment and neglect, a major theme of the story is that animals are viewed as disposable objects. When Stella became lame in a circus act, she was sold to Mack (in lieu of receiving medical care.) When she became too ill to perform in Mack’s acts, she died as a result of an infection. After she died, she was buried in a garbage truck with a fork lift. When she was no longer profitable, her worth no longer existed.
The style of this novel is unique and effective. It is divided into sections, each with a title and theme that vary from a few sentences to a few pages long. The animals are humanized with their dialogue. The word choice is simple but complex in meaning. This present tense narration allows the reader to become involved every step of the way as Ivan, Stella, and Ruby experience sadness, recollect warm memories, and develop true friendship.
Although a work of fiction, it is easy to empathize with the characters knowing that similar events actually occurred. This story gives a personality to a gorilla and an elephant that actually lived. It is impossible not to be drawn-in to Ivan’s dilemma. When his plan is finally realized and Ivan, Ruby, and even Bob, find peace and safety, it is very emotionally satisfying and worth the tear or two you probably invested in getting to the end of the story.