Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Wonderful and Extraordinary Ivan

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012 was a weepy day for me. I woke up and was going through my Twitter feed as I brushed my teeth. It had been a pretty busy week already and I felt like I was behind in what was happening with my tweeps. I saw someone ask John Schu if Ivan had died and his answer was yes. I almost dropped my toothbrush I was so shocked.
I had to quickly go back through the tweets and find a links to articles that talked about how Ivan had needed to be put under anesthesia so they could see what they needed to do to help him and that he never woke up after that. This news didn’t just make me teary-eyed, before I knew it, I was a wreck with tears streaming down my face.
Ivan’s story has gripped my heart. I love Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan and talking to others about the book. I chose to sponsor it for my summer book club and had three students sign up to read it over the summer so we could discuss it now that school is back in session. Her writing lets us see into Ivan’s life and connect with him and how it must have been for him to be at the B&I all those years. What I really think is amazing is how her fictional story of Ivan helps us connect to the real-life Ivan and his story. They are definitely intertwined but it’s amazing to me how students and adults alike react when they find out The One and Only Ivan is based on a true story. People seem to be infinitely more intrigued to know about the real-life Ivan after having read and connected to him so strongly through Katherine’s fictional account of his life.
I can’t help thinking that if I had heard about the real-life Ivan without first reading the book, that I would have definitely be sad but I don’t think I would have been as crushed as I was without having read The One and Only Ivan. I’m not even sure the real-life Ivan would have been on my radar at all. Sad but true. I can’t even tell you how immensely happy I am that I did get to know Ivan, first as a fictional character, and then as the real-life wonderful gorilla that he was. As a lover of animals, Ivan’s story helps us all see how much humans do impact the lives of animals and how much we need to remember that animals don’t have voices. We have to speak for the animals and do our best to take care of them.
On Friday, my little book club met to talk about The One and Only Ivan and to Skype with Katherine Applegate. It was an exciting experience for me to get to experience how the kids talked with the author about the book and about Ivan’s fictional and real life stories. We talked about how lonely Ivan was and how it’s too bad he couldn’t take matters into his own hands. The kids heard Katherine explain how kids were a big part of the campaign to help Ivan have a better life. That was so empowering to hear. One student shared how he felt like Mack, the fictional caretaker of Ivan in the book, had loved Ivan almost as a brother at first and had treated him differently before he became an attraction at the mall. He felt like it seemed that Mack didn’t intentionally mean to make Ivan miserable but it kind of ended up that way. I loved Katherine’s response that Mack isn’t like most “bad guys” or villains in a book. He’s very much a realistic character who is both nice and not nice, but it doesn’t seem like he is purposefully malicious towards Ivan. The kids were interested in learning more about Ivan and his life and Katherine shared that they could see pictures and videos of him online.
The whole experience with Ivan has helped me recognize how grand stories are and how much stories – fictional or non-fictional – help us connect with the world. It would be a sad place to live if we didn’t have stories in the world. I am a better, more thoughtful and passionate person having known Ivan’s stories. I can’t help but think that this intermingling of fiction and non-fiction heightened my understanding and connection with Ivan’s story exponentially. It also makes me marvel at the implications of connecting fiction and non-fiction with students. For the last week and a half I have been fascinated by this realization and curiousness around the idea that teachers could make any topic so much more significant for kids if they connected fiction with non-fiction. If a student loves a fictional story, how can we help them bridge that story to some non-fictional reading? Or if a student reads an article or expository text, how can we help them find and read a fictional story that relates somehow.

Using one text to ask questions and then look for answers in other texts isn’t a new concept but the hold Ivan has had on me for the last week and a half has made me stop and think about how teachers need to be really helping kids make these connections. I’ll admit that I have cried for many characters and many real-life people before but there is something unique about the connection I feel for Ivan and how his story has touched me and so many others.

Did you experience these same emotions after reading The One and Only Ivan and then learning about the real Ivan’s story? Have you had similar experiences with other non-fiction/fiction connections? Please share!


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