My unlikely hero comes from this year’s Newberry Award-winning The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. I think this title is destined to become a classic, beloved children’s book, and it’s not just because it won a prestigious award. The narrator, an affable gorilla named Ivan who lives in a run-down roadside zoo, seems the textbook definition of an unlikely hero: a gorilla, for starters, as well as a character stuck in terrible circumstances with little hope of relief. Yet Ivan sees life in a unique and poignant way, always with a bit of humor, and you begin to see his personality peek through the trappings.
Ivan begins the story very much settled into his unfortunate circumstances as a performing circus animal – so settled, in fact, that he doesn’t think about his past or pay much attention to the unfairness happening around him. He lets life happen to him, trapped as he is without options or proper volition. As the story of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade unfolds, Ivan grows from a complacent character to one who feels he is the one and only hope to free a friend from a lifetime of unhappiness.
Applegate’s deft hand at crafting Ivan enables his growth to seem natural and moving, and is as easily followed by young readers as it is by adults. His innocence and occasional stand-offish manner make him seem at first to be set apart from his surroundings but, as with all great unlikely heroes, his true self begins to shine through and helps him break free of his own troubles and help others in the bargain. I defy anyone to read this story and not shed a tear or two at Ivan’s journey. His story is, I believe, a worthy addition to the list of unlikely heroes.