If this book had been written 50 years ago, it would be a lot different. A silverback gorilla who lives in a mall and is an artist? Sounds like a pretty innocuous set-up with the possibility of some light fantasy, right? Not in Katherine Applegate's hands. The One and Only Ivan isn't a fantasy at all: it's an apologetic for animal rights, and a screed against humans who keep animals in cages.
The underlying assumption is that humans, like gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, etc., are also great apes and should therefore treat their cousins with respect. To clinch the argument, Applegate makes her captive Ivan a gentle, compassionate, rational, somewhat melancholy gorilla who narrates his own story, punctuated frequently by reflections on art, beauty, and existence.
This is a very dark book. There is death, despair, postmodern nihilism, and gloom. Humans for the most part are portrayed as idiotic, destructive, and haters of beauty.....but also as quite similar to apes. This doesn't really seem like a children's book, it seems like thinly-veiled propaganda. Very thinly veiled propaganda, at that.
It's not surprising that The One and Only Ivan won the Newbery Award for two reasons: it's very well written, and it espouses an in-your-face left wing ideological agenda. Applegate's prose is descriptive and poetic, but she doesn't use it to tell us about the human experience, she uses it to force feed us with a very tired, very unbiblical worldview.
Animal stories are among our favorites at Exodus Books, but a good animal story either personifies critters to teach us about ourselves, or it shows us how animals can make good companions and servants to humans. The One and Only Ivan, on the other hand, uses the animal story platform to try to show that there's no distinction between animals and people, and therefore falls flat.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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