February 23, 2012


More. By I.C. Springman. Illustrated by Brian Lies. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

The One and Only Ivan. By Katherine Applegate. Harper. $16.99.

     We humans learn constantly from our interactions with animals, and children in particular tend to be open to lessons transmitted through fictional animal relationships that turn out not to be very far from reality at all. More is a story about hoarding and about the incessant need of some humans to acquire more than they need, simply because they can. But there is not a single word about that subject in I.C. Springman’s book. The story is simply about a magpie that at first has nothing except the band on its leg. Then a helpful mouse gives it something: a marble. And the magpie, inspired, starts to collect other things. But it doesn’t know where to stop. Not when it has “lots.” Not when it has “plenty.” Not even when it has “way too much.” Even when the mouse shouts “enough,” the magpie continues bringing stuff to its nest – in fact, it needs multiple nests to store everything (keys, coins, postage stamps, a harmonica, and all sorts of bric-a-brac). Eventually the magpie actually ends up buried in its possessions, and the mouse has to get a rescue brigade of other mice together to reduce the pile to “less” and then “a lot less,” until eventually mice and magpie agree that “not much at all” is really “enough.” The words are few and very simple here, with the story told through excellent Brian Lies illustrations – which are highly realistic in depicting the mice and magpie, but bend reality just enough to give the animals some human-like expressions and gestures. Lies, whose Bats at the Beach and other bat books also combine realistic drawing with fantasy adventure, here pictures a tale that is close to reality, since magpies really do hoard objects and sometimes create considerable stashes of humans’ cast-away items. Indeed, Lies’ accurate rendition of the magpie’s trove is one thing that shows children just how much we humans collect and then abandon: a whistle, a broken pocket watch, a wooden block, a jack, a mirror, an electrical plug, scissors, a playing card, and much more. Parents may need to reinforce the lessons of More with kids ages 4-8, but Springman and Lies do a fine job of having animals teach the basics on their own.

     Just as magpies really do collect, some gorillas really do paint – but The One and Only Ivan is more than a story about a painting gorilla. Katherine Applegate loosely bases this sensitive and unusual novel for preteens on the true story of a gorilla named Ivan that lives at Zoo Atlanta after almost three decades of life in a cage at a small roadside attraction. What Applegate does here is surround her fictional Ivan with imagined characters, animal and human – and give Ivan himself a voice. He is the book’s narrator, and it is through him that readers experience a world of small pleasures and enjoyable socializing even in a place that is not only inappropriate for a gorilla but also, in a human sense, a prison. The One and Only Ivan is not a formulaic “take better care of animals” book or an outright condemnation of the inhumane way in which captive creatures have been kept (and sometimes still are); if it were only that, it might be good advocacy but would be a poor story. What Applegate does is show that Ivan is initially well adjusted to his life as a star attraction at a roadside mall, enjoying the company of an elephant named Stella and a stray dog named Bob, and willingly helping the attraction’s owner, Mack, who not only puts the animals on display but also sells Ivan’s paintings. But a new arrival, a baby elephant named Ruby, upsets Ivan’s reasonably comfortable existence, and a janitor named George and his artist daughter, Julia, eventually upend Ivan’s world completely by first bringing more people’s attention to it and to him – and then attracting government and zoo observers, plus protest-sign carriers. There is an eventual happy ending for almost everyone (Ivan, Ruby, George, Julia and Bob), but that inevitable outcome is not what makes The One and Only Ivan special. It is the kind of voice that Applegate creates for the gorilla that sets this book apart. “Human babies are an ugly lot,” he observes. “But their eyes are like our babies’ eyes.” And, when he is jealous of the attention that Ruby gets: “[Julia] rolls a pencil across my cement floor. ‘You can draw the baby elephant too,’ Julia says. I bite the pencil in half with my magnificent teeth. Then I eat some paper.” Remembering his early life with Mack: “I went to baseball games, to the grocery store, to a movie theater, even to the circus. (They didn’t have a gorilla.) I rode a little motorbike and blew out candles on a birthday cake. My life as a human was a glamorous one, although my parents, traditional sorts, would not have approved.” Page after page is like this: naïve but observant, limited but cogent, different from a human viewpoint but close enough so readers will imagine that a gorilla just might possibly think this way. By creating the wholly unrealistic notion of a gorilla writing his own life story, by avoiding cliché while still showing how humans – even with good intentions – have so often mistreated animals even while caring for them, Applegate has written a gently moving book that is first and foremost a well-told story, but that also makes its point about improving the ethical relationship between humans and animals more effectively than a host of protest signs and shrill pamphlets.

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