The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

ivanLast week were the big award announcements at ALA. As usual I watched the live webcast and squealed with excitement over the titles. And, as has been the way for many years now, noted that I’d never heard of or read some of the winners. That said, many of the picture books and easy readers were very familiar to my household. Since I stopped working and my kids aren’t quite old enough I usually am not familiar with any of the Newbery contenders.  This year’s winner was The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. Since she made her bread and butter by writing the wildly popular Animorphs series, I had to think she must be feeling pretty smug and happy right now to be recognized for writing the best children’s chapter book of the year.  Anyway, I put it on hold immediately and picked it up the next day and was able to read it in one day. It’s wonderful! Now, this sort of book is right up my alley-touching, sensitive, an animal at its heart. It tugs on your heartstrings and I cried at the ending (and a few other places as well.)

Ivan is a gorilla who lives in a “domain” (cage) in a circus themed mall.  His companions are a little stray dog who sleeps on his stomach and a big elephant. Sadly she has an injured foot and the terrible keeper/owner won’t have it treated.  Ivan doesn’t remember his early wild days, but elephants never forget and Stella is able to tell him story after story of life in the jungle and things that have happened to her over the years.  Ivan loves art and painting and the owner sells his paintings in the mall gift shop.  The mall is somewhat lackluster and run down and a failing business.  To spice up business he purchases a new animal–a baby elephant.  If you’re not already thinking this is going to be a little sad and weepy from the domains, to the lonely existence, think about where that baby elephant came from. It’s terrible! Lest all the humans in the story be awful, the night keeper’s young daughter is a kind soul who talks to Ivan and cares about him. She loves drawing as well, so they are kindred artist souls. Ivan makes a vow that he will get the baby elephant out of the mall and into a place with others of her own kind.

This is such a sweet and heartbreaking and spare story.  Yes, it was a fast read because the sentences were spaced far apart on the page. But, as Ivan tells us, that’s because gorillas are not real chatterboxes. They only say what it is important. And so, every sentence of this book carries an impact and is beautifully written.

This was a really wonderful story and when I read that it was based on a true story I cried even more. I was really impressed how, in a story that included animals talking, there didn’t seem to be fantastical anthropomorphism.  All the elephant and gorilla behaviors were consistent with what scientists really do know about their behaviors, actions, and families.

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