The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

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In The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (HarperCollins, 2012), a mall circus gorilla, Ivan, comes to view his life in captivity differently when a baby elephant, recently kidnapped from her home in Africa, joins the mall circus. With a poignant and distinct voice, The One and Only Ivan was a book that touched me deeply, and I cried with Ivan as I longed for a happy ending! Ivan is about friendship, hope, and forgiveness. In so many ways, Ivan is well deserving of its 2013 Newbery Award.

I have never before read a book narrated by a gorilla, and while there are a plethora of animal books out there, something about Ms Applegate’s book, which is still an animal book, makes it distinctly unique. I’m sure part of it is the voice of Ivan, a gorilla who has not seen a fellow gorilla for 27 years and who, at the beginning, has blocked his memories because it is so painful for him, given his current state of captivity.

Ms Applegate also manages to make friendship real between gorilla, elephant, dog, and human. Without narration (as the animals cannot speak to the humans, but only to each other), so much is portrayed.  This is expert showing and not telling! It is so fantastically written.

Ivan is a creative gorilla. He loves art, and he draws with crayons and he paints as well. He does not believe he is a good story teller, and he downplays his own creativity. But when the time comes, he is able to show much initiative as he saves baby elephant Ruby from the fate they feared. In that sense, this book has a strong emphasis on hope. I think many humans forget to get out of the rut they create for themselves; Ivan’s story reminds us that we can always try something new.

Finally, the kindness of people in the book such as Julia and her father, George the janitor, give them the power to forgive. I loved how humans are not portrayed as all bad. Although they did something cruel to Ivan by locking him up for so long, humans in general see the humanity in Ivan and Ruby the elephant.

This book is inspired by the story of the real Ivan, a gorilla who likewise lived 27 years in a mall circus cage. In 1994, he was transferred to the Atlanta Zoo. He died in August 2012, shortly before The One and Only Ivan was awarded the Newbery Medal.

I do not consider myself an animal rights activist by any means. In fact, when I picked up this book, I was a bit wary of the premise. But this book is not necessarily about making sure animals are treated properly. It is also a book about beautiful friendship and recognizing one’s own potential. I love it, and I can’t wait until Raisin is a little older so I can hand it to him to love as well!

Reviewed on May 23, 2014

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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