What You Might Have Been
When Nina introduced this book way back in September, her biggest quibble was with Ivan’s voice, particularly the rich metaphorical language that dominates the first 50 pages or so. This didn’t bother me because, like many of you, I made a distinction between his thinking voice and his speaking voice. However, I do still find that first section harder to get through than the rest of the book, even though it effectively establishes Ivan’s isolation and hopelessness.
When I stack THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN next to the others books on our shortlist, I think it compares quite favorably, stronger in some areas, perhaps weaker in others, but fairly middle of the pack, all things considered–with one notable expection: development of theme. This is where I think this book can arguably lay claim to being most distinguished, as good or better than any other book in the field.
The great animal stories are not really about animals, after all. WATERSHIP DOWN is not about rabbits. CHARLOTTE’S WEB is not about barnyard animals. That is, they are not really about animals–not in a thematic sense–they are about us, humans. Despite the fact that Ivan claims he is a gorilla, despite his running commentary on the human-gorilla dichotomy, despite the true story that underlies this fictional one, Ivan is a person, and his story–like all great literature–explores what it means to be a person, to be human.
To be human is to feel empathy and compassion for fellow humans and other living creatures.
To be human is to use language–to need it–to communicate with fellow humans.
To be human is to have a powerful need for self-expression manifested through the process of creating art.
To be human is to have, whether real or adopted, a family.
To be human is to fulfill one’s potential, to be all that one can be.
To be human, to be fully human, requires the society of other humans.
Each of these themes is powerfully developed and entwined over the course of THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Ivan seems pretty complacent, hopeless, resigned to a life of captivity–until Ruby. His promise to find a different life for Ruby gives him the impetus to do for his young charge what he never would have done for himself. This strikes me very much as the kind of sacrifice a parent would make so that his or her child could have a better life. As Ivan puts all his creative resources toward fulfilling his promise, and as both Ruby and Ivan are delivered to the zoo, we come to the final 50 pages which deliver the most sublime of all the truths delivered in the book, the theme of hope, renewal, and second chances: It is never too late to be what you might have been. All hail Ivan, Mighty Silverback!
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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