Review posted June 8, 2012.
Harper, 2012. 305 pages.
2012 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Other Children's Fiction
This book is already my early Newbery pick. This might change during the year, but the book itself is exquisitely crafted and told simply. You believe a real gorilla is telling the story, and you see his growth.
Ivan is a gorilla. "It's not as easy as it looks."
Ivan lives "in a human habitat called the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. We are conveniently located off I-95, with shows at two, four, and seven, 365 days a year." That's what the owner says when he answers the phone.
Also in the mall circus are an aging elephant, some sun bears, chickens, rabbits, dogs, and some parrots. The other animals do tricks for the people who come in to watch them.
Ivan is resigned to his lot. The janitor's daughter, Julia, has brought him crayons. He draws pictures of things in his domain. The people don't recognize them, but they are willing to buy pictures made by a gorilla. He is an artist at heart.
But things change to make Ivan no longer so resigned. A baby elephant comes to their little circus. She is very young, very curious, very talkative, and misses her family. We see Ivan change now that he has someone to protect.
But how can a gorilla in a cage protect anyone?
This book will appeal to a very wide age range. I'm often prejudiced against prose poems, but in this one, it seems natural, since you don't expect complicated sentences from a gorilla. I am also prejudiced against present tense, but again, it seems like a natural way for a gorilla to tell us about his lot. After all, his life has hardly ever changed, and he's telling us about it as it happens. As a prose poem, there is plenty of blank space on the pages and the story reads quickly, so the language won't be an obstacle for less advanced readers. But the story covers issues that people of any age will care about.
The craft in this book is exquisite. We see Ivan grow, slowly and realistically, as he is confronted with situations that make him care, in spite of himself.