National Geographic
Menu

Writing Like a Gorilla … and Winning a Newbery Medal

A novel told from a gorilla’s point of view won the 2013 winner of the Newbery Medal, the top honor in American children’s literature. The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, is based on the true story of Ivan, a gorilla that was kept for 27 years at a department store in Tacoma, Wash. Pop Omnivore’s Rachel Hartigan Shea spoke with Applegate about how she channeled the voice of the great ape.

How did you first come upon Ivan’s story?

Twenty years ago, I saw a story in the New York Times with a headline that was something like “Gorilla Sulks While Future Debated.” At that point the mall [where Ivan was kept] was bankrupt, and there was public outcry that this was an unacceptable way to treat a beautiful animal. I cut the article out and put it in my box of ideas. I kept going back to it, but it was a hard story to write.

How did the research you did about gorillas shape how you imagined Ivan in the book?

There’s an inevitable misconception about gorillas that just by virtue of their size—they’re 400-plus pounds of pure muscle—that they are ferocious and dangerous animals. But the more I researched and observed video clips and talked to primatologists at zoos, the more I discovered how essentially gentle they are and how important the extended family unit is in a gorilla society.

At one point in the story, [Ivan’s friend] Stella tells the story of [a real gorilla named] Jambo. A boy fell into his enclosure. There is footage of it, and it’s fascinating to watch Jambo approach the boy. Jambo puts the boy’s hand to his nose to smell because he’s trying to figure out what the boy means to his dominion. If you’ve ever gone to the zoo and had eye contact with a gorilla, you know how curious they seem about their fellow primates.

How did you channel a gorilla’s voice?

When you go into the head of an animal, by definition you are being anthropomorphic. To really inform the character as you need to, you have to address how the character is perceiving the world as an animal. What is the hierarchy? What is important? Is it the sun on your fur? Is it your next mango?

Was it difficult to find a way to depict animal cruelty in a children’s book?

I didn’t want to soft pedal. I think children are capable of understanding nuance and reality. I wanted them to know that cruelty is very real and awful but that humans can be actors for good. I tried to have some moments in the book that show that.

The real Ivan was eventually moved to Zoo Atlanta, where he could finally go outside and be with other gorillas. Did you ever visit him there?

I attempted to, but I went on a rainy day, and he didn’t like rain. I went with my daughter, and we stood outside for a couple of hours.

Ivan died on August 20, 2012, at the age of 50.

I went to his memorial service, which was fascinating. It was held outside the area where he lived and the sign was covered with a burlap coffee bag because he liked to move around by sliding one under his butt and hands. -by Rachel Hartigan Shea