I love librarians. My first job, at 15, was shelving books at the public library in my hometown in the Chicago suburbs. I say that to inoculate myself because I’m about to say something negative about librarians, or specifically the American Library Association, which annually bestows the John Newbery Medal on the best children’s book of the year.
The Newbery is a big, important award. The winning book gets an embossed golden sticker put on its jacket. The author gets the certain knowledge that “Newbery Medal winner” will be in the first paragraph when the time comes for an obituary to be written.
My problem is that too often the Newbery winners seem like books kids should read rather than books kids want to devour. They’re important. They’re serious. They’re sometimes just hard to love.
Where is the joy? The wonder of childhood? The invitation to travel to a world where the imagination runs rampant?
Enter “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate, this year’s Newbery winner. The story of Ivan, a majestic silverback gorilla who is kept in a cage at a mall along with other animals, is, sadly, based on a true story.
What makes it remarkable is that it’s written in the form of Ivan’s journal. If only most humans were half as wise as the amazing creature that Applegate envisions.
This is a book that works as a read-aloud for first-graders and as a challenging treatise on the human (and animal) condition for high-schoolers. (It’s hard to imagine an adult who wouldn’t be entranced as well.)
Everything about the book invites kids in. The first chapter consists of three sentences. Talk about an enticement for a reluctant reader. And they are three sentences that defy you not to turn the page.
There are beautiful illustrations scattered throughout. The simple sentences are produced in a large font on pages generous with white space. This is not an insignificant storytelling device.
And then there are those sentences: simple in structure, disarming in their child-like directness, profound in their wisdom. For example, after Ivan gets angry with obnoxious children who spit on the glass of his cage, he feels remorse: “I’m sorry I called those children slimy chimps. My mother would be ashamed of me.”
Or late in the book, when Ivan is particularly interested in a female, there’s this: “Romance is hard work. It looks so easy on TV. I’m not sure I will ever get the hang of this.”
And suddenly your child is in Ivan’s mind. What does a silverback gorilla think? Or Stella, an elderly elephant? Or Bob, a stray dog?
Perhaps it is not surprising that Applegate told me her favorite books as a child were “Dr. Dolittle” and “Charlotte’s Web.” She has put together a cast of talking animals as memorable as those.
And as in “Charlotte’s Web,” Applegate’s characters lay out for children some of life’s hardest truths, but in a way that makes a child feel love and compassion. For any tears that are shed, there are far more giggles. And most important, after spending time in Ivan’s world, it’s hard to imagine a child who won’t say, “I want to read another book just like that one.”
This year, the librarians got it right.