October 02, 2014


Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla. By Katherine Applegate. Illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Clarion. $17.99.

Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed: Deluxe Edition. By Eileen Christelow. Clarion. $16.99.

     The evolutionary closeness of apes and monkeys to humans makes for considerable difficulty in our dealings with them, not only in the real world but also in the world of books – fiction and nonfiction alike. Not so long ago, in the early 1960s, the obvious intelligence and clear responsiveness to humans of apes and monkeys made them favored attractions – not only in zoos and circuses but also in commercial establishments, including the shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington, to which the gorilla named Ivan was brought to help draw customers to a place called the B&I Circus Store. In reading about Ivan, it is very important not to impose the standards of our own time on earlier ones, even if we believe ourselves morally superior now – or at least better informed. The fact is that there was nothing particularly unusual at the time of Ivan’s capture in Africa and his transport to the United States as a shopping-mall attraction: we knew far less 50 years ago about gorillas and other great apes than we do today. In fact, Ivan’s captivity and his eventual release to Zoo Atlanta for the final 18 years of his life were part of the overall story of humans learning more about better and worse ways to interact with our distant cousins. Katherine Applegate, who already wrote a novel called The One and Only Ivan, now tells the gorilla’s story in a sensitive picture book whose G. Brian Karas illustrations are clearly designed to evoke every possible bit of sympathy for Ivan: he is shown smiling happily when first born, bewildered as a faceless man approaches him with a net, and frowning worriedly after he is caught and put in a box – all very anthropomorphic expressions that a real-life gorilla would not have, although the underlying emotions may very well be analogous to ones that Ivan experienced. Most of Applegate’s book emphasizes how unhappy Ivan was, although she stops short of directly blaming those who used him for commercial purposes, focusing young readers instead on the power that people have to make things better: “People began to grow angry about Ivan’s lonely life. Children and adults wrote letters, and signed petitions, and held protests.” The book becomes a celebration of Ivan’s release into the Atlanta Zoo – still a form of captivity, but a more-benign one than a shopping-mall cage – and his apparently happy life there (Karas shows him with a contented half-smile). Back-of-the-book pages explain more about Ivan’s life, again in minimally judgmental terms, and provide Web sites to which readers can go to learn more. The result is a sensitive and well-meaning book that, however, raises (on its periphery) some difficult-to-answer questions. For example, Ivan lived to be 50 years old (he died in 2012) – while gorillas in the wild live only into their 30s, and not always even that long. So was Ivan’s longer life among humans an unalloyed evil, or was there a tradeoff of some sort in which his admittedly heartless capture brought him more years (eventually in a place of peace, with other gorillas around him) than he would otherwise have had? Questions like this are ones that parents would do well to explore with sensitive and thoughtful children, especially those who read Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla and wonder how anyone could possibly put Ivan on display at a mall. No one could or would do that now, at least in the industrialized world, but books like this can be openings to a study of the past and of our increased understanding of animals – if that is the role we want a book like Applegate’s to fill.

     The difficulties of deciding on how we want to interact with apes and monkeys become clear and are accentuated with a look at the wholly fictional, wholly enjoyable and wholly unrealistic 25th-anniversary edition of Eileen Christelow’s Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed. Christelow offers a highly amusing retelling and illustration of the traditional song about five little monkeys jumping until one falls off and hurts his head; the remaining four little monkeys jumping until another falls off; and so on. The pictures of the increasingly distraught mother monkey and ever-more-frustrated doctor monkey who is ignored when he repeatedly says “no more monkeys jumping on the bed!” are wonderful. And Christelow’s final page, showing the monkeys’ mama jumping on her bed, makes a delightful ending. Furthermore, the new Deluxe Edition of this 1989 book offers a very nice “how to draw a monkey” bonus, plus a free audio download. But how are families “supposed” to react to the book? It is intended purely as fun; nobody thinks the pajama-clad monkeys are real-world animals; the expressions in Karas’ drawings of Ivan may be anthropomorphic, but in Christelow’s book the entire story treats the little monkeys as if they are human children; and what does all this say about us, that we continue to find monkeys and their adorable-to-human antics a matter of fun, a matter to exaggerate in kids’ books that may create expectations of how real-world monkeys behave and how they can and should be treated? It is not necessary to be a typically humorless, self-important animal Puritan of the PETA variety to wonder about ways in which the juxtaposition of stories like Christelow’s and Applegate’s may affect the young children for whom the books are intended. Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed is written purely for enjoyment, but there is a question about just how pure fun can be – even for children – at a time when so many people take so many issues, including the treatment of animals, so very, very seriously. Hopefully families can discuss the difference between a book like Christelow’s and one like Applegate’s, and hopefully there will always be room in our homes for amusements with animal characters – yes, including ape and monkey characters. Hopefully, too, children will be better than adults have sometimes shown themselves to be at making a distinction between the hijinks of fictional monkeys and apes and the real-world needs of the animals on whom the caricatures are loosely based.

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