“I like colorful tales with black beginnings and stormy middles and cloudless blue-sky endings. But any story will do.”
It’s not unusual for me to choose a book for the kids and me to read based on the cover. Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan is no exception. The cover illustration of a contemplative gorilla sitting with his back to a grinning baby elephant glancing admirably at his large friend stood out from among the dozens of other books featured on the display of my local bookstore. The gold medallion placed prominently in the bottom left corner indicating it was a Newberry winner sealed the deal. My strategy did not disappoint.
The One and Only Ivan follows the story of Ivan, the mighty silverback gorilla, who is a resident of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. He, along with an elephant named Stella, a poodle named Snickers, and a cast of other animals was at one time the main attraction of this once-thriving mall, but unfortunately, Ivan and his pals no longer bring in the crowds. Mall owner, Mack, desperate to renew interest in the Big Top Mall purchases a baby elephant named Ruby, whose presence transforms Ivan from contented gorilla into an artist with a mission.
At first, Ivan doesn’t seem to mind life in his domain. “With enough time, you can get used to almost anything.” He has plenty of yogurt raisins, a stray-dog pal named Bob, visits from the janitor’s daughter Julia, and plenty of art supplies to keep his attention. A promise to a dying friend, though, forces Ivan to change his perspective. Using his unusual artistic gift, Ivan concocts a plan that will change Ruby’s, and his, life forever.
Ivan is a one-of-a-kind story, from the structure of the chapters to the character himself. The story of The One and Only Ivan unfolds slowly through a multitude of short chapters, the title of each revealing as much as the chapter itself. The varying chapter lengths create a rhythm that easily captures and keeps the attention of young children.
The One and Only Ivan is replete with charming characters full of heart. Ivan’s loyalty teaches children the true meaning of friendship. “It would be easier to promise to stop eating, to stop breathing, to stop being a gorilla. ‘I promise, Stella,’ I say. ‘I promise it on my word as a silverback.'” Ivan’s steadfast love and strength of character ensure he keeps his promise. While Ivan is also a commentary on the importance of treating everyone and every animal with dignity and respect, it is much more a story of devotion and unwavering belief.
If there is an antagonist, it is humans, particularly mall owner Mack, yet in the story, much like in life, the antagonist isn’t necessarily a bad guy. Mack, like most of us, has good and bad qualities. Readers can see a man with good intentions led astray by the hope of a better life. Mack isn’t easily loved, but he isn’t someone you long to hate either. Much like mankind, Mack makes poor choices. This dynamic can lead to a great discussion with older children about what makes someone good or bad and are those roles so easily defined. Indeed, humans are complex, and this book provides a great entrée to explore that complexity.
For educators, The One and Only Ivan also provides opportunities to study the natural habitats of animals and what it means for an animal to live in captivity. Students can seek to answer the difference in the life of an animal who lives in the wild versus one who lives in a zoo. A field trip to the zoo to speak with zookeepers about the treatment and care of different animals, especially elephants and gorillas, would be ideal. It also allows children to explore what it means to be empathetic, trustworthy, and loyal. The book also illustrates the concept of making selfless decisions for the welfare of someone else. The One and Only Ivan is ideal for children ages 8-12, but my seven-year-old easily understood it, as well. At 300 pages, it might be daunting for younger readers to attempt on their own, but the structure of the book makes it ideal for a read aloud.
The One and Only Ivan tackles each issue it raises with humor and grace and will certainly be a book my children and I revisit from time to time.