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Book review: ‘Ivan’ strong and sensitive

“I am Ivan I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks.”

So begins the journey into the mind of the late celebrity gorilla, Ivan, a star at Zoo Atlanta until his death last August.

As we learn in “The One and Only Ivan,” by Katherine Applegate, Ivan is strong, sensitive and patient.

“Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape,” says Ivan. “Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans not so much.” Ivan must be patient because his home is in a concrete, glass and metal box in a shopping mall by the highway, and the scenery never changes.

A winner of this year’s Newbery Medal, the highest honor in children’s literature, Applegate’s novel for ages 8-12 is fiction. But it mirrors the life of the real Ivan, who, before coming to Atlanta, lived almost 28 years in solitary confinement, in a cage in a circus-themed shopping mall near Tacoma.

Ivan is full of opinions about the animals and people who live in his “domain,” but he doesn’t dwell on his problems. “Gorillas are not complainers,” Ivan says. “We’re dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.”

Applegate is the author and co-author of a host of children’s and middle-grade books – there are 35 million books from her “Animorphs” series in print. In 1993, she read a story from the New York Times about the shopping mall gorilla. She knew Ivan’s tragic youth and midlife liberation made for a story worthy of Dickens. But she put off writing it.

“I was reluctant to tackle it because I wanted to approach it semi-journalistically,” said Applegate, 56, speaking from her home in Tiburon, Calif. But sticking with the facts wouldn’t let her tell the whole story. Eventually she began looking to escape the book series merry-go-round. “I wanted to take the risk of writing a single title that had a beginning and a middle and an end. And it was frightening.”

Her editor, Anne Hoppe, suggested returning to Ivan’s story, but taking the liberties that fiction affords, primarily, the opportunity to go inside Ivan’s thoughts.

“I do think it’s great to imagine what’s going on behind those piercing eyes,” Applegate said.

The result of that imagining is “The One and Only Ivan,” published last year, with a central character as captivating as the arachnid heroine in “Charlotte’s Web.” Ivan is dignified and patient, and he has the soul of an artist. He is drawn into action when he makes himself responsible for the welfare of a baby elephant named Ruby.

Applegate establishes an indelible character, which is also an act of imagination, because Ivan died before Applegate ever had a chance to meet him.

“After he passed away, Ivan’s keeper sent me a close-up photo of his face, and his eyes are piercing and intelligent and yet so beyond our reach,” she said. In real life, endings are rarely happily ever after, and in “The One and Only Ivan,” the final chapter is bittersweet. But the emphasis is on the sweet, which is how Applegate feels about the fate of the real Ivan.

“It wasn’t a perfect ending, but it was so much better than it might have been,” she said. “Zoo Atlanta is an amazing zoo, and he could not have ended up in a better place. That was a great thing.”