Wednesday, January 30, 2013


The One and Only Ivan  by Kathleen Applegate
Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel
The Fat Girl by Marilyn Sachs

This month I read three books that had similar themes.  The best one, by far, was The One and Only Ivan by Kathleen Applegate.  I'm not the only one who thinks so, either.  The author of the Animorphs series just won the 2013 Newbery Medal for this story of a gorilla living in a shopping mall circus.   The gorilla is ,of course, Ivan. He was captured as a baby from his home in Africa. He barely remembers those days.  Most of his days have been spent in a small glass cage in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  The only real variety to his life are the people that come by to stare at him and the TV he's allowed to watch.  Luckily, he's got good friends in the elderly elephant Stella, stray dog Bob, and Julia, the daughter of the mall janitor.   The book is told from Ivan's point of view and reads almost like a diary. The rules of nature apply here.  Ivan can't talk to Julia or any other human. He's a gorilla, after all. But we are privy to the conversations and thoughts of the animals. This isn't "a book about a talking gorilla" (as they used to say about Babe, the movie "about a talking pig.").
When Ruby, a baby elephant, is brought  to the mall circus Ivan is moved to think beyond the mass to what might be possible on the outside.
The One and Only Ivan is based on the life of Ivan, the gorilla that lived out the latter years of his life at Zoo Atlanta.  The real Ivan spent 27 years in that shopping mall. It was a wonderous day when he first set foot in his outdoor habitat at the zoo.

Half Brother is set in the 1970s and is about a family that moves to Vancouver for a research project about teaching sign language to a chimpanzee.  This is the first time that anyone has tried to communicate with a primate (the reason the book is set in the70s).  Ben Tomlin's father, behavioral scientist,  is the researcher attempting this unbelievable experiment.  His mother, working on her thesis, is in charge of working with Zan the chimp and the student interns.
Ben's mother gets Zan when he is a babe in gorilla arms.  He is literally snatched from his mother's breast.  But soon Zan gets used to his new family and the family gets used to him. Ben begins to love him as a brother. The only problem is that Dad sees Zan as simply a research subject and when the research money dries up, it's not problem for him to sell Zan to another research facility.
Half Brother  is about the ethics of using animals for research and about forcing animals to live in unnatural situations.   It is heartbreaking at times.
The problem with the book is the middle school story.  We are told about Ben's experiences in his new school and his attempts to make friends and become an "alpha male" amongst the students. He approaches it as a research project, even keeping a research log on his crush, the pretty Jennifer Godwin.   I understand the comparison between middle-school society and ape society and the comparison between manufactured relationships and natural relationships, but I was more interested in the Zan story than the school stuff.

The Fat Girl has nothing to do with apes, but it is about manufactured relationships and middle school.  This could have been a Lifetime Movie or an ABC Afterschool Special. It's Pygmalion for teenagers.

"Jeff Lyons can't stand Ellen deLuca, the fat girl in his ceramics class. She's huge, clumsy, can't throw a pot to save her life, and stares at Jeff all the time. But he's a 'nice guy' and feels terrible when Ellen overhears his hurful remarks about her.  The 'crumbs of kindness' he tosses her way soon turn into advice on weight loss, college, clothes, hair...and, to everyone's surprise, good looking Jeff actually dumps his pretty girlfriend to be with the fat girl! Re-creating Ellen is a labor of love, Jeff thinks. But as her pounds melt away, Jeff resents the happy, independent young woman he has unleashed. Where is the gratitude for all he's done for her?  With this darkly ironic take on the classic Pygmalion tale, Marilyn Sachs offers young readers a candid portrayal of wht happens when the intoxicating thrill of control is confused with love."

When I read Half Brother and Ben Tomlin's attempt to make Jennifer Godwin like him, it reminded me of the way that Jeff Lyons manufactured a relationship with Ellen deLuca.

Not a very good book, but it would appeal to some teens.

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