Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla
by Katherine Applegate, illus. by G. Brian Karas
This charming and moving picture book starring the gorilla that captivated readers in The One and Only Ivan tells Ivan's real story from his capture in central Africa to his 27 years of captivity in a Tacoma, Wash., shopping mall, to his transition at last to Zoo Atlanta. Applegate's spare text never anthropomorphizes the primate and gives readers just enough grounding to follow Ivan's journey, while Karas's full-spread illustrations and vignettes fill in Ivan's emotional life through the gorilla's engaged expressions and body language.
Applegate allows readers to imagine what Ivan might be feeling as a social creature who's now without his family. The text reads like poetry: "In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla's life began." Karas (Tap Tap Boom Boom) shows an expressive young gorilla, with his mother holding him close, his eyes staring out at readers. "The baby was born in a tropical forest in central Africa," the text tells us, as Ivan, still in his mother's arms, observes the gorillas in his troop. "He was part of a large family of western lowland gorillas." Karas next shows Ivan playing with other baby gorillas. The artist also depicts the male leader, the silverback, who stands out from the rest of the group by his sheer size, stature and majestic silver robe of fur. "The more he played, the more he learned," Applegate writes, implying what scientists know: as they swing from vines, wrestle and seek out hiding places, the young gorillas are honing skills that will help them survive in adulthood.
A haunting spread follows: "He did not learn about humans until it was too late." Readers look up through trees that nearly block out the sky with their height and fullness, and an airplane travels through a small opening in their leafy circle. On the page opposite, we see a man with a net approaching little Ivan from behind. "Poachers with loud guns and cruel hands stole the little gorilla and another baby," Applegate writes. By suggesting what transpires without overt evidence, author and artist allow even youngest readers to sense the danger without taking in more than they can handle. They brilliantly solve the challenging problem of how to illustrate this essential plot development.
The artist places readers in Ivan's place with his depiction of the baby gorillas' travels: we see the inside of a dark crate with only cracks of sunlight, and their unloading in an urban area with smoke spewing from a nearby factory, traffic in the background, and money changing hands. The humans treat Ivan and his companion, Burma (named through a shopping mall "Name the Babies" contest), like children, dressing them and feeding them ice cream. But soon after their arrival, Burma dies. "Without her, Ivan was all alone, with too much left to learn." Once again, without author or artist anthropomorphizing the gorilla, Karas suggests his emotional response with an image of the small gorilla snuggled against a pillow with his name embroidered on it, where once there was a pair of pillows. His loneliness emanates from the page.
A series of vignettes depicts Ivan bouncing back, attending baseball games, holding babies and riding on a motorcycle. But he soon outgrows his childlike qualities--and size: "A cage in the mall became Ivan's new home." He watches TV, plays with a tire and occasionally fingerpaints. Ghosted images of passersby as Ivan looks out from a brightly lit window imply his lack of connection: "Mostly, he watched the humans watching him." An ingenious juxtaposition shows, on the following spread, the view from where a 13-year-old Ivan stands, a silver band of fur beginning to grow in, looking out at a father and his two children. "In the jungle, he would have been ready to protect his family," writes Applegate, "But he had no family to protect." It is perhaps the most poignant moment in the book. The next image is a ghosted profile of Ivan, viewed through the window, the humans in full-color looking at him. "Year after year passed," reads the text, and people begin to "grow angry about Ivan's lonely life."
Their campaign pays off. After 27 years, Ivan moves to Zoo Atlanta. Applegate and Karas chart the gorilla's transition from captivity to the open fields of his new home. "Was Ivan ready?" asks the text as Ivan peers out, his torso inside the facility, his knuckles on the grass outside. As Ivan, seated in the grass, looks up at the sky, with other gorillas around him, we feel his sense of freedom.
Applegate brings Ivan's story full circle with her closing line: "In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla's life began again." Her afterword fills in additional details of Ivan's life, and includes an adorable photo of Burma and Ivan just a few months old, as well as a stately portrait of a mature Ivan. A note from Ivan's keeper at Zoo Atlanta offers insight into his personality, and concludes with a reproduction of one of Ivan's finger paintings and a list of organizations for further reading. A heartfelt tribute to a magnificent animal. --Jennifer M. Brown