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It's time now for NPR's Backseat Book Club. We know kids are out there listening at the kitchen table or in the backseat of the car. So we find middle grade books for ages 9 to 14 to read together, and then we meet the author. This month's pick, "The One and Only Ivan" by Katherine Applegate, features a gorilla who spent 27 years in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington.
NPR's Michele Norris tells us more.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: "The One and Only Ivan" is based on a real-life gorilla who finally made his way to the Atlanta Zoo, and so we headed to the National Zoo here in Washington, D.C., to meet author Katherine Applegate.
We chatted with her near the fenced yard behind the Great Ape House. While there, a black gorilla was munching on breakfast - fistfuls of greenery.
KATHERINE APPLEGATE: Hello.
NORRIS: You almost expect him to wave back.
APPLEGATE: They're absolutely listening.
NORRIS: Do you think that there's something unusually special about watching gorillas because their fine motor movements are so close to our own. I mean, he's reaching for grass and leaves there in the way that we would reach for toast.
APPLEGATE: Exactly. Or in my case, coffee. Absolutely. Their manual dexterity, it's so human. I think, though, it's the eyes that get me. That penetrating gaze, that intelligence, it's hard not to be anthropomorphic when you're looking at a great ape - at any primate - but especially with gorillas. They're just so magnificent.
NORRIS: When we sat down to talk about the book, we began where the book begins. The opening chapter of "The One and Only Ivan" is unusual. It's succinct and direct, like a handshake.
APPLEGATE: It reads: Hello. I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It's not as easy as it looks.
NORRIS: Not easy because Ivan lives far from the wild at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Not easy because he's lonely, though he does have a few loyal friends, including a highly opinionated dog, an aging elephant and eventually a baby elephant, who sets his life on an entirely new course.
And Ivan's life is not easy because he's always on display, but Ivan is watching all those people who watch him, and his observations about humans are among the biggest delights in this book. Applegate says she long wanted to write a story about animals in captivity.
APPLEGATE: Ivan's story was so compelling and so bizarre. The fact that he had been captured as an infant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought to Tacoma, Washington, to live in a mall for almost...
NORRIS: A shopping mall.
APPLEGATE: A shopping mall. It was beyond comprehension. And when I first came across this story in The New York Times, the headline read: Gorilla Sulks in Mall as His Future is Debated. This was about 20 years ago. They were trying to figure out what to do with this guy, and I thought, oh, there's a story there. I just have to figure out how to tell it.
NORRIS: We have questions from our listeners. That's one of the wonderful things about the Back Seat Book Club is the people who read these books, the younger people who are in all those back seats send us their questions. This is from a student named Olivia: I'm Olivia Biggs. I'm 8 years old. And have you actually met Ivan?
APPLEGATE: I tried to meet Ivan. I went to the zoo. I took my 13-year-old daughter - she was about 10 at the time - and it was a very wet day. Ivan hated wet weather, and he never came out. And I sat there for hours in the rain, and my daughter was looking at me, going: Are you crazy, Mom? But...
APPLEGATE: Well, I'd flown all the way to Atlanta. I was determined to see him. But, you know, at the end of the day, I realize this guy actually had some control over his environment. In the old days, would he have been able to go anywhere? To make a choice like that? And it was really validating. I was OK that he couldn't come out. I did go to his memorial service later, though.
NORRIS: His memorial service when he died?
NORRIS: What was that like?
APPLEGATE: His keeper, Jodi Carrigan, told stories about Ivan. He was quite a character. Liked to wear a sombrero. He hated to walk around in wet weather, so he would carry around a burlap coffee bag and stick it under his butt and slide around on the grass that way. He was not shy about making his needs known.
NORRIS: While we were here at the zoo, during our interview, we had an interesting moment. We stopped for a minute to change the battery on our recording equipment. And while we were doing that, a young reader, someone who overheard our conversation saw the book, "The One and Only Ivan," seated on the bench and walked up and introduced himself to Katherine Applegate. His name is Shawn Kramer(ph). He's from Evergreen, Colorado. And we decided to let him ask his own question.
SHAWN KRAMER: How did you start getting into writing?
APPLEGATE: I think all writers write from the time they're really young, and you just start asking the question: What if? You know, what if you were sitting here next to me and you turned into a cat? I have a story. So I was writing at a really young age, but it took me a long time to be brave enough to become a published writer or to try to become a published writer. It's a very public way to fail, and I was kind of scared. So I started out as a ghost writer, and I wrote for other series, like Disney "Aladdin" and "Sweet Valley" and books like that. And then my husband, Michael Grant, and I started a series called "Animorphs" about kids who can turn into animals, and that was our big first success.
NORRIS: We're so glad we ran into you. Thank you.
APPLEGATE: I'll send you your 50 bucks.
NORRIS: What do you want young readers to take from this?
APPLEGATE: I think we have a real obligation when we do have animals in captivity to understand their needs and to care for them as well as we can. Stella, the elephant in "Ivan," says, you know, humans surprise you sometimes, and I hope that the next generation can surprise us all.
NORRIS: That was Katherine Applegate talking about her Newberry Award-winning book "The One and Only Ivan." While we had fun at the zoo, it's time for us to zoom back in time to the summer of 1964.
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NORRIS: And, man, is it hot in Hanging Moss, Mississippi, when the swimming pool is closed. Read "Glory Be" by Augusta Scattergood. That's our next book. Join us in NPR's Backseat. Send us your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us @nprbackseat.
I'm Michele Norris.
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