The school year is drawing to a close, but NPR’s Backseat Book Club has plenty of reading lined up for the summer. Our June pick is The One and Only Ivan, a Newbery Medal-winning book by Katherine Applegate. It tells the story of a gorilla that spent 27 years in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Wash. — and it’s based on a true story. The real-life Ivan finally made his way to the Atlanta Zoo. Applegate joined NPR’s Michele Norris at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to talk about Ivan, and what she finds so captivating about primates.
“Their manual dexterity, it’s so human,” she says. “I think, though, it’s the eyes that get me. That penetrating gaze, that intelligence, it’s hard not to be anthropomorphic when you’re looking at a great ape — at any primate — but especially with gorillas. They’re just so magnificent.”
The book begins with a simple introduction: “Hello I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.” It’s not easy because Ivan lives far from the wild at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Ivan is constantly always on display, but it’s not a one-way street; Ivan watches all the people watching him, and his observations about humans are among the greatest delights in the book. It’s a lonely life, but he does have a few loyal friends including a highly opinionated dog, an aging elephant and, eventually, a baby elephant who sets Ivan’s life on an entirely new course.
On writing a story about animals in captivity
“Ivan’s story was so compelling and so bizarre. The fact that he had been captured as an infant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought to Tacoma, Wash., to live in a mall? … It was beyond comprehension when I first came across this story in The New York Times. The headline read, ‘Gorilla Sulks in [a] Mall as His Future Is Debated.’ This was about 20 years ago. They were trying to figure out what to do with this guy, and I thought, ‘There’s a story there, I just have to figure out how to tell it.’”
On trying to meet Ivan
“I tried to meet Ivan. I went to the zoo, I took my 13-year-old daughter — she was about 10 at the time — and it was a very wet day. Ivan hated wet weather and he never came out, and I sat there for hours in the rain and my daughter was looking at me, going, ‘Are you crazy, Mom?’ … I’d flown all the way to Atlanta! I was determined to see him! But at the end of the day I realized this guy actually had some control over his environment. In the old days would he have been able to go anywhere? To make a choice like that? And it was really validating. I was OK that he couldn’t come out. I did go to his memorial service later, though.”
On Ivan’s memorial service
“His keeper Jodi Carrigan told stories about Ivan. He was quite a character. He liked to wear a sombrero, he hated wet weather so he would carry around a burlap coffee bag and stick it under his butt and slide around on the grass that way. He was, um, not shy about making his needs known.”
On becoming a writer
“I think all writers write from the time they’re really young and you just start asking the question, ‘What if?’ What if you were sitting here next to me and you turned into a cat? I have a story. So I was writing at a really young age, but it took me a long time to be brave enough to become a published writer, or to try to become a published writer. It’s a very public way to fail. And I was kind of scared, so I started out as a ghost writer, and I wrote for other series, like Disney Aladdin and Sweet Valley and books like that. And my husband, Michael Grant, and I started a series called Animorphs about kids who can turn into animals, and that was our big first success.”
On what she’d like young readers to take away from the book
“I think we have a real obligation when we do have animals in captivity to understand their needs and to care for them as well as we can. Stella the elephant in Ivan says, ‘You know humans surprise you sometimes,’ and I hope that the next generation can surprise us all.”