The One and Only Ivan ~ Katherine Applegate

imagesIndulging in a spot of idle web-browsing the other day I came across a review of a book for children by Katherine Applegate called The One and Only Ivan and, given that I have been complaining about losing touch with the world of children’s literature, I paused to read it.  If I’d realised sooner than I did that it was an animal book then I would probably have stopped reading, because as a general rule, unless they are of the quality of Charlotte’s Web, I don’t ‘do’ animal books.  However, I didn’t register that fact until the reviewer quoted the novel’s opening lines:

I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

and with those three short sentences any antipathy I might have been about to feel was immediately washed away. How can anyone resist such a wonderful narrative voice?  I searched high and low round our local libraries and when I finally found a copy sat down and read it in a single sitting, which is precisely what I’m going to urge you all to do, because this is a very remarkable book indeed.

Ivan, as you will have gathered, is a gorilla.  Although he can just remember some aspects of the life he led in the wild with his parents and his twin sister, Tag, he has, as we discover quite late on, blocked many of his memories in order to accept the life he now leads in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where he and several other animals, including the elephant Stella, put on shows three times daily.  Now a giant silverback, Ivan is a wise and patient animal, somewhat bemused by humans:

I have learned to understand human words over the years, but understanding human speech is not the same as understanding humans.

Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.

It took me some time to recognise all those human sounds, to weave words into things. But I was patient.

Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape.

Gorillas are as patient as stones. Humans, not so much.

It seems as if Ivan has become resigned to, even accepting of, his lot.  He has his friend Stella and also Bob, a small terrier-type dog, who finds his way into the enclosure that Ivan calls his domain, and sleeps every night on the great ape’s stomach.  (It has a tendency to make Bob sea-sick – all that up and down as Ivan breathes – but the warmth is nice.)  What is more, he has his art.  Ivan loves drawing things and the small daughter of the Mall’s cleaner, Julia, who is also an artist, keeps him well supplied with the necessary materials.  Perhaps nothing would ever have changed in Ivan’s life if Mack, the Mall’s owner, had not introduced a second elephant into the mix, this time a baby by the name of Ruby.  And, as Ivan watches Ruby’s gentle spirit being systematically broken he comes to a momentous realisation;

Ruby taps her trunk against the rusty iron bars of her door.  “Do you think,” she asks, “that I’ll die in this domain someday, like Aunt Stella?”

Once again I consider lying, but when I look at Ruby, the half-formed words die in my throat.  “Not if I can help it,” I say instead.

I feel something tighten in my chest, something dark and hot.  “And it’s not a domain,” I add.

I pause, and then I say it. “It’s a cage.”

And so begins Ivan’s campaign to ensure that Ruby has a better life than the one that he has known.  I can’t say any more without giving too much away, which is bitter indeed, because I could happily go on quoting from this book all day.  Suffice it to say that this is a novel about friendship, love, bravery, determination – I want to say about the unquenchable nature of the human spirit, except, of course, Ivan isn’t human, he is a gorilla. He is also one of the most remarkable and heroic characters that you will ever meet in literature.

It wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I discovered that it has just been given this year’s Newbery Award for Children’s Literature.  As far as I’m concerned this book is well enough written, true enough to the emotional world of its characters and deep enough in its exploration of matters of far reaching consequence to hold its own in the short lists for any award you care to mention.  I will be giving a copy of The One and Only Ivan to every child I know and I can only urge you to do this same, if only so that you can read it for yourself before you wrap it up and pass it on.

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Seraphina ~ Rachel Hartman

imagesOne of the things I really regret now that I am no longer at work is that I haven’t kept up with what’s new in the field of literature for children and young adults.  I’m still an active member of communities working in my other areas of interest, language studies and Shakespeare, but there is no children’s literature department in the University I’m now associated with and gradually my knowledge of what is current has begun to falter.  I would probably do more about this if I wasn’t aware that recent trends in the field aren’t particularly to my taste.  I’m not big into vampires and some of the more gritty realism is a bit too gritty for my liking.  However, over the past couple of months I’ve seen several excellent reviews for a first fantasy novel by an American born, Canadian resident, Rachel Hartman.  Called after its teenage heroine, Seraphina has won acclaim from critics and readers alike and has been shortlisted for several awards.  Now, fantasy I do like and so I put a claim in for this as soon as my local library ordered a copy.  It hasn’t disappointed.

I sometimes think that for fantasy to work it almost has to out realism realistic fiction.  While the world created might differ substantially from our own, it is imperative that we believe completely in the internal logic of what we are reading about.  The setting has to be consistent, we have to be able to see it in our mind’s eye and find no gapping holes in the fabric constructed.  The characters have to be three dimensional and if their circumstances dictate that they behave in ways that wouldn’t be possible in our reality they must at least be acceptable in theirs.  Psychologically their thoughts and acts need to bear witness to their back story and be seen to result from what happens to them as the story progresses.  The plot doesn’t simply have to hang together, it must have an inner rationality true to the probability laws of the setting in which it takes place.  And, perhaps most important of all, there needs to be an unswerving ethical thrust, because if fantasy is about anything it is about asking the reader to question the moral stance of their own society and culture.  Let one of these slip in the world of fantasy fiction and you’re lost.  Readers might just forgive an act of inconsistency in a realist novel (do better next time) but one false step in the world of make believe and the edifice the author has striven so hard to build in the mind of his or her audience will crumble irretrievably.

Hartman does not stumble.

The world she offers us is one in which the warring factions of dragons and humans have lived together in an uneasy alliance for forty years following a treaty made by Queen Lavonda and the Ardmagar of the dragons, Comonot.  But, Lavonda is old and Comonot is loosing the support of those dragons who regret the loss of their traditional hunting grounds and their traditional prey.  So, when the Queen’s only son, Rufus, is found dead with his head missing there is concern on both sides.  Was the murder committed by a rogue dragon or was it the action of the Sons of St Ogdo who, emphatically opposed to the treaty, might well have staged the crime to implicate the dragons and bring the fragile peace to an end?

Into this investigation, however unwittingly and unwillingly, steps Seraphina, daughter of the lawyer most closely concerned with maintaining the treaty and, as a court musician, witness to much of the heart searching and intrigue that the murder reveals.  Seraphina is talented, intelligent and deeply lonely, lonely because she carries a terrible secret which prevents her from allowing any but her closest family to come too close.

And there I have to stop, because if I say any more I shall give away too much and spoil the pleasure you might have if you choose to read this book.  I did, however, want to say just one thing about how Hartman manages to create a world that is so alien and yet so completely real because I think it says something about the different ways an author can set about presenting his or her world to the reader. Basically, you can show or you can tell.

J K Rowling takes up the latter option.  By creating a hero who himself  knows nothing about the world he enters she has the perfect excuse to have other characters explain everything to him and thus to us at the same time.  Think about the scene on the island when Harry first encounters Hagrid. The gentle giant kindly explains enough about the wizarding world for both Harry and the reader to make sense of what the young wizard is about to encounter and what he misses out Ron Weasley soon fills in for us.

Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, however, opts to show us.  His opening words, Lyra and her daemon, thrust the reader into a world which needs no explaining to the characters that inhabit it and it is up to the author to provide enough information, at the right pace, for the audience to build up a picture they can understand.  No one ever gets round to telling us precisely what a daemon is.  Why would they?  They all know.

Hartman follows the same path as Pullman and she does it very skilfully.  To give just one example: the musical instruments in this world include the flute, the ord and the megaharmonium.  Now, I know very well what a flute is and I’ve heard of the middle eastern, lute-like ord, so I am moved from the familiar, to the unusual, to the invented, which I have no difficulty in accepting because it has its place in a set I know and can connect with.  Besides, a megaharmonium is exactly what the word says it is and the noise is superb – at a distance.

For a first novel this is a very well crafted work and I’m only sorry that I have to wait until September for the next instalment.  Which is probably the best thing of all about really good fantasy, it never comes single handed.