The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Cindy: Grab your tissue box and some popcorn and settle in to read The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (Harper 2012). I initially picked this up based on the cover art and out of a curiosity for what Animorphs author Applegate was up to these days. I was not prepared for what I would find and how it would move me. The book opens with these words:

I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

It’s not as easy as it looks.

Ivan lives in a glass and concrete enclosure with a jungle-painted wall at the run-down Big Top circus-themed shopping mall.  He is friends with Stella, an older elephant, and a stray dog named Bob. Enter Ruby, stage left, a young elephant that Ivan promises Stella he will care for. Initially, Ivan is resigned to his fate, believing: “With enough time, you can get used to almost anything. But Ivan comes to realize that Ruby deserves a better life than he and Stella have had and sets about to make that happen through his artwork. Yes, Ivan paints pictures that the mall owner sells for $20 in the gift shop, $25 with a frame.

This is a book with lines to linger over. With ideas to process. With animals you want to help. With animals who make you question your own humanity.  Am I being melodramatic? I don’t think so. It’s that good.

Lynn: I admit to being a little reluctant to read this book as I am hyper-sensitive to animal mistreatment in books.  I know, I know – I can shrug off a few hundred human casualties but one act of cruelty to an animal undoes me.  I don’t claim logic on this issue, just stating the facts.  But it took only a few pages and Ivan had me completely.  Not only Ivan but all the animals and also the compassionate mall custodian George and his sweet daughter, Julia, claimed my heart right away.  As Cindy says, this is a book that offers up much to think about and discuss with kids.  What defines humanity?  Are there differences between animals and people?  What is art?  What do we, as conquerors of the planet, owe to the other inhabitants?  There is so much here and it is presented with wonderful accessibility to children without ever being heavy-handed.

The text is large and there is a lot of white space on the pages, making this a very enticing book for readers just taking the plunge into reading “fatter” books independently.  And don’t forget Patricia Castelao’s endearing illustrations!  This would also be a dynamite book for reading aloud.  Warning – there is one very sad animal death here but the sweet hopeful ending made up for all the kleenex I used.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate"

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  1. Oh, I have been tempted so many times to read this one, but I have been with you, Lynn. Worried about the content in reference to animal cruelty. I think it’s time to take the leap, though. Thanks for a great reviews; they gave me chills. I suspect the book will as well.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Lynda. This book really is worth the leap! The characters are wonderful and I’m fascinated by the way they emerge so strongly without just being portrayed as humans in furry skins. There IS sadness in the book so keep some kleenex handy but the ending is wonderfully hopeful.

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