Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and only IvanThe One and Only Ivan
By Katherine Applegate
Harper, 2012
Genre: Middle Grade (Ages 8-12)

Once upon a time, I was the one who fed books to The Eight-Year-Old. “Mommyo, she would ask, “I need a new book. Can you find one for me?”

“Sure,” I’d say, handing her a Hardy Boys mystery, one of Thornton Burgess’ animal stories, a new collection of fairy tales, or an adaptation of fairy tales like the Dragon Chronicles by Patricia Wrede or Valiant by Sarah McGuire. “Try this,” I’d say. “Let me know what you think.”

Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of asking her. “The Eight-Year-Old,” I’ll ask. “I need a book. Do you have any good ones I can read?”

“Sure, Mommyo!” And then The Eight-Year-Old will run off to her room at cheetah speed and come back bearing whatever book has struck her fancy that week. That’s how I came to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Dragon in the Sock Drawer, and Mr. Pants: It’s Go Time!

The last time The Eight-Year-Old and I had this conversation, she had just finished reading The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.

Aimed at 8-12 year olds, but offering plenty for their parents as well, The One and Only Ivan tells a fictionalized version of the life of Ivan, a gorilla who has lived in the Big Top Shopping Mall for so long he can hardly remember the jungle. His best friend is a small dog of uncertain heritage named Bob and an elderly elephant named Stella. Ivan learns to draw from the daughter of the janitor who cleans his cage, and spends his time thinking about the TV shows he watches while the shoppers who occasionally visit the Big Top Mall watch him.

His life plods on, until one day the visitors stop coming. To attract new life to the mall, the mall’s owner acquires a baby elephant, Ruby. Being with Ruby reminds Ivan of what life was like in the jungle. Of what it felt like to have others around you to care for. Of what it means to be a silverback gorilla, charged with protecting your babies from harm.

Although Stella adores little Ruby, and little Ruby adores her, the older elephant’s health declines rapidly once Ruby arrives.  Stella makes Ivan promise her that he will take care of Ruby once she’s gone.

“If she could have a life that’s … different from mine. She needs a safe place, Ivan. Not –“

“Not here,” I say.

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.”

How Ivan keeps that promise makes for a remarkable tale that skirts, yet never quite abandons, plausibility.

The simple emotional power of Applegate’s writing reminds me very much of Kate DiCamillo. There is humor sprinkled throughout, but there is also sorrow, and plenty of characters worth becoming emotionally invested in.

The result is a lyrical, sorrowful, heart-breakingly beautiful story in which the happy ending comes in the imperfect guise we all know from real life.

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