Category Archives: animal books

The One and Only Ivan

Have a hankie handy when you read this one.  For sad tears and for happy ones.

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.


Leave a comment

Filed under animal books, fiction, friendship, realistic fiction, sad

Guest Post: John Claude Bemis, author of The Prince Who Fell from the Sky

Today’s post is a treat.  A guest post written by John Claude Bemis, writing about his latest novel, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky.  I will post my own full review of the book soon, and you’ll get a good idea of what it’s about from his post, but I will say for now that I really enjoyed this moving, thoughtful book.  It’s hard to categorize–a good choice for fantasy lovers, animal book lovers, kids who enjoy family stories, and even younger fans of dystopian novels.  What stood out to me was how strong the characters were, how “real” their emotions felt to me, and I think John’s post below will help explain why.  When a writer loves their characters, it’s natural for us as readers to love them as well.

John Claude Bemis writes:

I’m a nice guy.  Really!  I snuggle up with my daughter and read Mo Willem books to her.  I don’t bark at my students when they talk out of turn.  More than that, I’m always there for them with hugs and kind words.

But get me behind my laptop and I can be downright mean.  A writer has to be mean to his main character.  It’s a funny thing.  You grow to love your main character, you desperately want him or her to succeed, but to make for an exciting story, you have to throw every terrible thing their way…and enjoy doing it.  Sadistic, isn’t it?

The main character of my new novel The Prince Who Fell from the Sky is a bear named Casseomae.  She’s an outcast among the other forest animals because all her cubs have died at birth.  The animals whisper that she’s cursed or a witch.  Casseomae longs for cubs of her own.  She’s a sweet old thing, but tough and powerful and scary when she needs to be.  I deeply love her.

So why did I have to be so mean to her?  Why not fill the forest with generations of her cubs?  Why not spare her from her lonely existence?  Because she wouldn’t be a very interesting character, that’s why.

When the idea for Casseomae’s character came together in my imagination, I wanted something good for her.  I wanted her to find happiness.  I knew if I gave it to her too easily, I’d have a sappy, boring story.  So I gave her first the possibility of happiness in the form of a human boy.

Casseomae lives in a future where there are no people left on Earth.  All the animals of the forest however have legends about us and most aren’t too pretty.  When a spaceship crashes and the lone survivor emerges, Casseomae is faced with a choice.  Kill the boy, as she knows the ruling wolves of the forest would demand.  Or protect him from the animals that want humans to stay gone.  She decides to protect the boy, but I didn’t give her the happiness of a cub yet.  She has to earn that through the story.

Being a writer is like being one of those trickster gods from myth.  Those gods who stir up trouble, up-end people’s lives, take away what they love most.  But in the end, those trickster gods bring a lot of good to their victims.  I might have to begin a story being mean to my characters, but it’s for their own good.  I want Casseomae to grow and transform.  I want her to be happy.  But I can’t just give that to her.  That would be boring.  She has to work for it.

And work for it she does.  In The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, Casseomae faces unbelievable odds to protect her “cub.”  And I love her all the more for it!  I hope you will too.


John Claude Bemis is the author of The Clockwork Dark, a fantasy adventure trilogy that takes place in a mythical America. The first book, The Nine Pound Hammer (Random House), was described as “a steampunk collision of heroes, mermaids, pirates, and good old-fashioned Americana” by Booklist and was a New York Public Library Best Children’s Book 2009 for Reading and Sharing.  The trilogy continues with The Wolf Tree and The White City and has been described as “original and fresh” and “a unique way of creating fantasy.”  His new book The Prince Who Fell from the Sky was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2012.   John lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

1 Comment

Filed under animal books, dystopia, fantasy, fiction