Thursday, April 16, 2020

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (2012)

Ivan is a gorilla who lives in a cage at a mall arcade, where he does drawings to amuse visitors. This is the only home he has known since leaving the jungle years ago, and he isn't especially unhappy with the conditions. When Ruby, a baby elephant, is brought to join him in the arcade, however, Ivan begins to see how being in captivity affects her, and his perspective on his own situation starts to shift as well.

I have been putting off reading this book since it was first awarded the Newbery Medal in 2013. I tend to dislike animal stories, and were I not trying to read every Newbery winner (and had my husband not bought this book at a book sale) I probably would have just skipped it. Unfortunately, though, I finally decided to read it, and I will never get those hours of my life back.

My biggest problem with this book is that it tries to convince readers that animals and human beings are equivalent. The author endows Ivan and the other animals of the story with human reason and emotion, and uses these to manipulate the reader into feeling pity for the animals. Mistreating animals is wrong, the story seems to suggest, because animals are just like us, or perhaps even morally, emotionally, and intellectually superior. This worldview, that "animals are people too" is one from which I actively shield my children, as it contradicts our Christian understanding that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and that they are given dominion over the animals. I don't agree with mistreating animals, but the reason we shouldn't mistreat them has more to do with our responsibilities as stewards of creation than it has to do with the animals themselves. It's wrong to keep animals in malls because we know it's bad for them, not because animals have complex inner lives we just don't happen to know about. Ivan's inner monologue tugs at the heart strings, but this does not mean real gorillas are secretly as thoughtful, poetic, and intelligent as he is.

Philosophical objections aside, I thought the writing in this book was fine, but not remarkable. The author did a nice job of describing the setting of the story in a way that helped me visualize it, and though the human characters lacked nuance, they did have engaging personalities. Still, I don't allow my kids to read propaganda because it discourages them from thinking for themselves. I suppose this book lends itself to some interesting topics of discussion, but it also draws conclusions on behalf of the reader and makes it difficult not to feel guilty. There is nothing wrong with feeling pity for animals who are in unfortunate or dangerous situations, but to suggest that animals in peril can respond to their plights as human beings might is disingenuous and confusing. I'm not ready to say my kids will never read this book, since we do own it, but if they do, it will most likely be in the context of learning to deconstruct a novel's worldview in order to understand what agenda an author might be trying to promote, and that probably won't be until the upper elementary or middle school years.

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