Katherine Applegate won a Newberry Medal for her middle-grade novel The One and Only Ivan, and the award was well deserved. I just listened to it on audio and was completely taken in by this unique story narrated by a gorilla.
Yes, Ivan is a gorilla, and he tells his story. When I first realized this at the start of the audio, I worried it would be kind of gimmicky and silly, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ivan lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, in a small glass enclosure. Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog, are friends of Ivan’s who also live at the Mall. Stella performs in daily shows, and Ivan is known for his drawings that sell in the gift shop for $30 each ($40 framed).
The animals have some human friends, too, including George, who cleans up around the mall, and his kind daughter, Julia. Things change for all the residents of the Big Top Mall when Mac, the owner, brings in a new baby elephant, in an effort to lift sagging profits. Little Ruby misses her family but is welcomed by Stella, Ivan, and Bob. After Ruby arrives, though, Ivan begins to realize that things need to change – and hopefully, for the better – so he comes up with a crazy plan that just might work.
Far from being silly, these animals who can talk among themselves stir deep emotions – joy and sorrow, horror and happiness. The book is recommended for ages 8 and up, but parents should consider whether their child is emotionally mature enough for the serious issues it raises including wild animals being taken into captivity (and worse) and mistreatment of animals. I won’t give away specific plot points, but one character does die in the book, and there is one passage of poachers killing and capturing gorillas. Parents may want to read the book aloud to younger kids, so they can talk about what’s happening. I think it depends on the child. I have an 11-year old niece who cried inconsolably every single time she watched Spirit (which has some tense moments but a happy ending) – I wouldn’t recommend this book to her!
For most kids, though – and grown-ups, too – there is a big pay-off for getting through the sad stuff, and the story does have a happy ending. Think in terms of Charlotte’s Web or Babe, both in terms of tone and quality. This is a book with plenty of heart plus a sense of humor. Interestingly, Applegate was inspired to write this novel based on a true story of a gorilla known as Ivan, the Shopping Mall Gorilla. She has crafted a moving story of friendship and determination, with unusual emotional depth for a middle-grade novel. Definitely a winner.
P.S. I loved listening to the audio - the narrator does Ivan's voice perfectly - and it would be perfect for a family road trip. The book also has some advantages, though, including a few illustrations and short chapters perfect for middle-grade readers.
Listen to an audio sample here.
Visit Katherine Applegate's website, including more information on the real Ivan.