As evidenced by the above paragraph on the 2nd page, The One and Only Ivan is a lovely book by Katherine Applegate. I was unexpectedly and completely drawn right into this gorilla’s thoughts and life. I felt for the gorilla, but I also immediately thought of any sort of name-calling or assumptions that cause people to doubt themselves — be that person me or an 8-year-old who just got glasses.
Ivan is a gorilla who has lived in a weird sort of mall circus for 27 years. His owner isn’t unkind to him, but he’s lonely. And without seeming too dark, we hear about Ivan’s loneliness and survival, recounted with Applegate’s sparse yet beautiful prose (or is it a free-verse poem?). He’s lonely for more of his kind and the life a gorilla is meant to have, but his life is not awful. He has Stella and Ruby the elephants in the area next to him, and Bob the stray dog who sneaks into the hole at the bottom of Ivan’s glass enclosure to snuggle up and sleep on Ivan’s stomach.
Julia, the janitor’s daughter, also uses that hole. She slips Ivan paper and crayons and markers and paint. They are both artists, so they understand each other.
Ivan is a selfless hero, as he seeks to make baby elephant Ruby’s life better and get her out there.
In spite of the fact that the story is from the point of view of an animal, it reads like realistic fiction. The humans and animals don’t talk to each other, but Ivan narrates the story, and the animals communicate with each other.
I’m adding this to our 5-Star Reads list, because it’s an emotionally resonant novel that speaks to children. Often adults like this sort of book, but I honestly think that this animal story will appeal to kids from 3rd grade (maybe younger) on up, especially animal-lovers or artists.
There is a discussion guide as well, which would be awesome to use a springboard for a book club group or classroom or home conversation.
Jennifer Donovan loves getting lost in the magical realism of middle grade fiction like this. She loves sharing such finds with her children, whom she has immortalized in the www at her blog Snapshot.