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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The One and Only Ivan, written by Katherine Applegate. Harper, 2012. $10.99 ages 8 and up

"A good zoo," Stella says, "is s large domain. A wild cage. A safe place to be. It has room to roam and humans who don't hurt." She pauses, considering her words. "A good zoo is how humans make amends."

Stella is a captive elephant whose life consists of a 'domain' in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, and three shows a day for the people who visit the mall:

"They hunt frantically, stalking, pushing, grumbling. Then they leave, clutching bags filled with things - bright things, soft things, big things - but no matter how full the bags, they always come back for more."

Sometimes the shoppers stop to see the show and to visit the animals housed there. Ivan, a complacent and artistic gorilla has adapted to being watched through the glass walls of his 'domain':

"I strut across my domain for them. I dangle from my tire
swing. I eat three banana peels in a row.

The boy spits at my window. The girl throws a handful
of pebbles.

Sometimes I'm glad the glass is there."

Ivan is the first person narrator of this glorious tale. He doesn't miss his old life much because he has trained himself not to think about it. His best friend Stella is a storyteller who tries to encourage Ivan to remember and tell his own stories. The days roll by, endlessly similar and with little to tell one from the other. Then Ruby arrives, frightened and lonely. She is a baby! She is a tiny elephant who misses her mother, her sisters, her aunts and seeks solace under the tutelage of Stella.
Ivan thinks mostly about art and is encouraged in that pursuit by the young girl whose father cleans the mall. Julia, too, is an artist and she brings Ivan paper, pencils and crayons. Ivan never gets tired of his art:

"Humans don't always seem to recognize what I've drawn. They squint, cock their heads, murmur. I'll draw a banana, a perfectly lovely banana, and they'll say: "It's a yellow airplane!" or "It's a duck without wings!"
That's all right. I'm not drawing for them. I'm drawing for me."

Ruby's arrival changes everything. Ivan does not want her to be abused and he decides that he must keep her safe in whatever way possible. He uses art to make his message known, and in doing so forces himself to remember what he would rather forget. It is a tribute to his courage and longing for a better life for the tiny, lonely elephant. I will not reveal the ending but it will break your heart while mending it again.

There are so many parts I want to share with you. I have read some of the short, unbelievably articulate sentences again and again. Ivan made me laugh, made me think about the world and he made me cry. Katherine Applegate felt compelled to tell this story of love and longing, of pain and sadness, and of family after learning about the 'real' Ivan. She includes his story in her author's note. That she could do it with such compassion and concern (and in a gorilla's voice, no less) for his welfare and that of the other animals housed with him is testament to her writing talent.

Please buy this book and share it with someone you love!


  1. Thanks for the review. I didn't think I would want to read a book about a gorilla, but you have made me want to. I'll be getting it along with "The Mighty Miss Malone" by Christopher Paul Curtis during my next round of book buying. I read "Glory B", which you reviewed last week, and enjoyed it. Thanks for taking the time to write such thorough reviews. :)

  2. Sal, you were right on the money about this book. It is wonderful!!!