Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
“Researching The One and Only Ivan“
by Katherine Applegate
Photo courtesy of the author
I love doing research when I’m working on a novel, and not just because it’s a great way to procrastinate. Research can be as vital to a work of fiction as it is to nonfiction. It fleshes out your backstory. It helps you make serendipitous connections. It lets you know—truly know—your characters and setting.
It was a pre-Google world when my husband, Michael Grant, and I wrote Animorphs (a middle-grade series published by Scholastic about kids who could turn into animals). We relied on a bookcase full of well-worn nonfiction books about animals, insects, birds: anything morph-able. When we couldn’t find the right book, we would rush to the public library. I recall spending hours thumbing through the card catalog like a forty-niner sifting through a stream for nuggets of gold. Ideas were there: possibilities, connections.
But that was then. The One and Only Ivan (HarperCollins, 2012), my novel based on the story of a gorilla caged in a Tacoma, WA, mall for 27 years, was written in a digital world. Want to know if these creatures eat mangoes? Care to see what they look when they play tag? Like to gaze into the eerily familiar eyes of a newborn gorilla? No problem. There are websites and apps that will provide you with those facts and visuals.
Illustration © Patricia Castelao
Still, it was the old-fashioned kind of research that most informed my writing of Ivan. I spent a day at the Tacoma Public Library archives, searching through yellowing articles about the real gorilla. I went to the mall where he’d lived in solitude for so many long years. And of course, I traveled to Zoo Atlanta to see the real Ivan. It was a rainy day, and Ivan, not a big fan of damp weather, didn’t venture outside. It didn’t matter. Just being there was heart-stopping. The magnificent animal, who’d endured so much, the one who’d inspired my story, was a few feet away, and that was enough.
A copy of the novel “signed” with Ivan’s thumbprint.
Photo credit: John Schumacher
The One and Only Ivan was published in January 2012, and Ivan passed away in August. But research, like laundry, is never really done. There are always more questions to be asked. I flew to Atlanta to attend Ivan’s memorial service. I met his keeper, his saviors, his friends. It was moving and haunting at the same time. How could a single Western lowland gorilla, one whose life had been so truncated and altered, have touched so many human lives? The book is done, but the questions continue. The research never ends, and that’s a good thing. It’s a lot more fun than laundry.
– An original article by Katherine Applegate
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Katherine Applegate. All images courtesy of Katherine Applegate.
More online resources about Katherine Applegate:
Hear Katherine Applegate share the pronunciation and story of her name. Listen now
Hear Katherine Applegate share the backstory for and read an excerpt from The One and Only Ivan. Listen now
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