The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. Illustrated by Patricia Castelao. Harper: 2012. Ages 8-12.
Ivan is a gorilla. He will tell you that isn’t as easy as it looks. It is even harder when you live in a cramped cage at the Big Top Mall and Video. Ivan is also an artist. He draws pictures with crayons that sell for $20 in the mall gift shop, $25 with a frame. Ivan’s best friends at the mall are Stella, an elephant who performs tricks she learned while part of a circus, and Bob, a stray dog.
Now that Ivan is a full-grown silverback, he no longer draws the crowds that paid to see him when he was young and cute. Some people still come to see Stella perform, but she is old and has an injured foot. The mall owner, Mack, decides the business needs a boost from another cute baby animal. And so Ruby arrives and everything changes. Caring for Ruby causes Ivan to rethink his art and his home, and to dream of a better life for all of them.
This story is told from Ivan’s point of view and while the book was inspired by a real-life gorilla (also named Ivan), this gorilla’s tale is uniquely his own. Every character truly comes to life as seen through Ivan’s sympathetic eyes. Even Mack is not a bad guy. He honestly cares about Ivan and the animals. He just doesn’t have the money or the knowledge to care for them properly. For me, one of the saddest parts of the book is Ivan’s response to a young boy’s comment that he must be the loneliest gorilla in the world. “It’s not so bad, I wanted to tell the little boy. With enough time, you can get used to almost anything.” Ivan’s story includes its share of sadness. But it also has joy and hope. The heartbreak is balanced by the uplifting ending. As Stella tells Ruby and Ivan, “Humans can surprise you sometimes.” And sometimes those surprises are happy ones.
This review also appeared on the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s Shelf Life blog on May 3, 2012.