That’s how many years Ivan the silverback gorilla has lived at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Life in a cage is no fun, but Ivan has his friends: Bob the stray dog; Julia, the janitor’s daughter, who gives Ivan art supplies; and Stella, a former circus elephant living in the next cage.
Both Stella and Ivan were born in the wild. Stella remembers exactly how she came to live at the mall. Ivan could if he tried, but he prefers not to. When the memories come, he paints (mostly fruit), or makes a joke, and eats yogurt raisins (his favorite snack).
Then Ruby arrives. A baby elephant just captured from the wild, her curiosity and fear unleash something in Ivan, something he hasn’t felt in a long time. He starts telling her the story of his past. He paints imaginary things instead of the objects in his cage. And he starts imaging a different life, away from the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.
I must admit, I was wary of this book. I picked it up after a stressful day, when I wasn’t in the mood for a depressing animal rights story. But I laughed at the end of chapter one, and then I was hooked. Because even though the plot follows an expected arc, with plenty of harrowing scenes (all three animals were taken from the wild), Applegate tempers it with humor. Ivan has a flair for comedic timing, especially when it comes to jokes about humans (yes, we talk too much. This blog proves his point). He switches between acting like a spoiled child, to an exasperated parent (when Ruby keeps him up at night with endless questions) and misunderstood artist (when humans misinterpret his masterpieces).
Applegate walks a fine line between making Ivan relatable and still believable as a gorilla. He understands human speech but can’t talk or write. Art, then, is his only outlet. Like Doug Swieteck in Okay for Now, Ivan uses art to express what he can’t put into words. In the end, it also saves him: there’s no fairytale ending for these animals, but what they get is realistic and fitting. I cheered for Ivan through 300 pages, and I will be rooting for this book, come Newbery time.