Book One of my Newbery Challenge: The One and Only Ivan


I’m so glad I started with this book because it’s one of my favorite middle grade novels of all time, and it was a fun way to kick off the challenge. No matter how many times I read this book, I always end up in tears (though I won’t say too much about that because I don’t want to write any plot spoilers).

For each one of my Newbery books, I want to post about one writing lesson I glean from its pages, and as I was reading this book, I knew the lesson would be about character. Character is at the heart of what makes this book so special, at times funny, at times heartbreaking, But how does Applegate accomplish this? What makes Ivan so special as a protagonist?

Well, for starters, Ivan is a gorilla. More importantly, Applegate lets Ivan BE a gorilla.

What do I mean by that?

The first novel I ever completed was about a character named Charlotte. Charlotte is a small plastic doll who lives in a Victorian dollhouse with a family of porcelain dolls. I was writing the novel as my MFA thesis, and when I submitted some of my early drafts for workshops, my thesis advisor, the wonderful Maggie DeVries, asked me: “But she’s acting like a human character here. How does she know about things outside? Would she know what a car is if she has spent her entire life living in this dollhouse? What words would she know? What things would be important to her?” And then Maggie asked the most important question of all:

“If she is not going to think, act, speak, and behave like a doll, if the point of view is not going to be filtered through a doll, then why tell this story from her point of view at all? Why make Charlotte be a doll? Why not tell the story through the point of view of a human?”

Maggie was right. I rewrote the story. And it was much better once I let Charlotte’s “dollness” shine through.

I was thinking about Charlotte as I read The One and Only Ivan because that is EXACTLY what makes Ivan so successful as a protagonist. He is a gorilla, and more importantly, as readers, we see the world through a gorilla’s eyes. Everything Ivan says, does, thinks about, reflects his “gorilla-ness.” Applegate does not treat Ivan like a human character who just happens to be a gorilla. No, Applegate dug deep into what it means to be a gorilla. She considered Ivan’s history and experience. She considered the things that would be important to him. She considered what the world looks like from Ivan’s perspective. She let his “gorilla-ness” determine the course of the story, rather than trying to impose plot events from the outside. Every thread in the story, everything that happens, stems from Ivan’s “gorilla-ness.”

Applegate does not try to make Ivan sound like a human. She lets him fling his “me-balls” (balls of rolled up poop) and eat his crayons when he is tired. He pounds his chest when he is angry. He calls shopping “foraging,” and money is “green paper, dry as old leaves” (Ivan lives in a shopping mall).

This is not an easy thing to do. As a writer, it can be difficult to get information across to the reader when your point of view character’s perspective is so limited. But resisting the urge to slip out of that perspective is worth the extra work. It makes characters feel real. It leads to wonderful discoveries about your characters. And in the end, it leads to a much more satisfying plot, one that stems organically from the protagonist’s goals, desires, and internal character wounds. Being true to who the character is (gorilla-ness and all) will mean that the novel has stakes that matter to that character, which is what will keep your readers engaged.

So my writing lesson gleaned from this book: Let your characters direct your plot. Dig deep into your characters, who they are and what matters to them, and then use their unique goals to guide the events that shape your story. This matters even if they are not gorillas.

Next up on my Newbery Challenge: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. I have not read this book before, so I am very excited to get started!

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