Applegate Challenges Humanity

The One and Only Ivan is a work of fiction, but the inspiration for this imagined tale lies in a true story. Ivan spent 27 years of his life alone in a cage. When I started to write about the grim facts of Ivan’s solitary existence, a new tale slowly began to take shape. At least on the page, where anything is possible, I wanted to give Ivan (even while captive behind the walls of his tiny cage) a voice of his own and a story to tell. I wanted to give him someone to protect, and the chance to be the mighty silverback he was always meant to be.   ~Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan was published in 2012 and won the prestigious Newberry Medal in 2013. There are various themes in the story that contribute to the genre of children’s literature. The first theme consists of Applegate challenging the definition of humanity by using Ivan’s point of view to illustrate how humans are capable of destruction, abuse and greed. Since Ivan narrates the story, the reader has direct access to his thoughts, feelings and experiences. This provides a profound emotional connection with the character, allowing the reader to vividly imagine Ivan’s years of suffering and exploitation at the hands of his handler.

This sense of straightforwardness in narration makes it easier for a child to identify with and explore the next theme; when humans fear without reason plus lack education about wild life, animals are often victims of cruelty and captivity. Throughout the story, humans are intimated by Ivan’s size and beastly appearance, but through his narration we learn that this is not the truth of his species. Male silverback gorillas are laid back in their natural habitat, only exhibiting aggressive behavior when protecting their family. It is through Ivan’s flooding memories and realizations that readers gain knowledge and awareness of the animal cruelty concept.

The last theme further examines Ivan’s journey of identity, which parallels the quest for meaning in life. Even though Ivan is an animal, the reader gains an understanding that every living thing has an important role in our world. This particular theme influences the reader’s association to the meaning of existing and the negative impact of animal confinement. It also cements the emotional understanding between that which is good or evil. The story’s message emphasizes the tragic power struggle that animals face with humans.

The freeway billboard has a drawing of Mack in his clown clothes and Stella on her hind legs and an angry animal with fierce eyes and unkempt hair. That animal is suppose to be me, but the artist made a mistake. I am never angry. Anger is precious. A silverback uses anger to maintain order and warn his troop of danger. When my father beat his chest, it was to say, “Beware, listen, I am in charge. I am angry to protect you, because this is what I was born to do.” Here in my domain, there is no one to protect. 

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