The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is the story of a gorilla, Ivan, who has lived for decades as one of a handful of animals at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall, a combination shopping mall, arcade, and tiny roadside circus. Ivan has friends–elephant Stella, stray dog Bob, and Julia, the young daughter of the man who cleans the windows of his cage. He has his art–drawings he makes with crayons and paper slipped into his cage by Julia and that his owner, Mack, sells for $25 each (with frame). He tries not to think about what he doesn’t have–freedom, companionship of other gorillas, space to roam around and explore. The painted jungle on one wall of his cage is as close as he can come to that, and he learned when he was very young that wanting more would just cause him more pain than he could bear.
So, he doesn’t think about it. Until a baby elephant, named Ruby, comes to live at the Big Top Mall. When he sees Ruby, and envisions her future as a lifetime spent in a small cage, Ivan does begin to think. His protective instincts kick in, and he comes up with a plan that he hopes will lead to a better life for Ruby, and maybe for himself as well.
What I love about this book: it is moving, and I would call it a feel-good book in the end, but it doesn’t shy away from some harsh realities of how animals are treated in some environments. As Ivan talks about in the novel, there are good humans, and there are bad humans. We see both kinds in this novel. This is definitely a good book to give to kids who love animals, but I think I would let the kids know that there are a few places in the book that are difficult to stomach, especially if reading about an animal being hurt or dying is too much. It ends on a very happy note, but there is some rough stuff along the way.
I also love Ivan’s voice. I did not expect to love this book, because the concept of a gorilla narrator seemed hokey to me, but Applegate really pulls it off. Within a few chapters, I was able to suspend any disbelief I had and just surrender myself to the story. I’m not sure how to explain it, but Ivan’s voice came off as authentically gorillan to me, even though I know that a gorilla would not actually think or talk that way. Maybe what I want to say is that Applegate didn’t simply stick human thoughts into a gorilla narrator; she tried to imagine how the world would really look to a gorilla, and how, if a gorilla could think and talk in our language, that would look/sound.
As far as age range, this one is excellent for grades 4-6. The chapters are short, and there is an added bonus of beautiful illustrations by Patricia Castelao. But I would not limit this book to younger readers. The subject matter of animal rights is something that could interest any reader, and while the language is somewhat simple, the story being told is complex. I certainly learned some things in reading this story.
I suspect we’ll see this on some Newbery lists, for good reason. Highly recommended.