Book Reviews

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

One of the things about growing up, I think, is that you get a pretty strong sense of what books you’ll like and which ones you won’t.

I know, for example, that I’m likely to enjoy most historical fiction set during the last two centuries, YA romances, everything by Sophie Kinsella, and anything that has to do with time travel. I also cannot say no to food-related non-fiction or pop psychology.

On the other hand, I shy away from fantasy that heavily features made-up worlds/animals/language, non-fiction with very tiny text, and . . .

. . . books about animals (sorry, Shiloh).

So, you can imagine that I was a bit wary of The One and Only Ivan when it won the Newbery. Seriously? A book from the point of view of a gorilla?

But then it was on the shelf at the library and I am trying (very very slowly) to read through all the Newbery titles, so I picked it up.

You guys. This book is so so good. I started it two weeks ago just before bed and then blazed through the rest of it while Ani snoozed in my arms at the library in Dallas.

This is the perfect combination of beautifully written and just absolutely gripping. Here is a book I would recommend without hesitation to older elementary school students, parents, fellow readers. . .just about anyone. Sometimes the Newbery committee really lets me down (am I taking it too personally? Maybe so), but they delivered this year.

Ivan, a silverback gorilla, lives in a cage (he prefers the term “domain”) at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Twice a day, he and the elderly elephant, Stella, along with a few other animals, put on a little circus show.

Ivan doesn’t mind his life – in fact, he pretty much never thinks about his life before he arrived here. He has a little TV, and his friendship with Stella, and he likes to draw (the owner of the mall sells his crayon drawings for $20 a pop). Things aren’t so bad.

But then, Ruby, a baby elephant, arrives and she does remember her past, including what it was like in the wild. And Ivan starts to remember his own past, first in the jungles of Africa, and then later, living in the home of a young couple.

And Stella is desperate for Ruby to not spend her entire life in a run-down wannabe circus mall. She wants Ivan to help, but what can a gorilla do?

Ivan has such a fantastic voice – he’s by turns light-hearted and depressed. Sometimes he has grand dreams and sometimes he’s resigned to his life in his domain, flicking dungballs at people who stop to gawk at him in the cage.

This book is every inch a Newbery winner. Even if you aren’t an animal book person either, give it a chance. I think you’ll love it.

One of the things that delighted me about this book is that it’s inspired by a true story – there really was a gorilla named Ivan kept in a tiny cage in a shopping mall in Washington state for 30 years. After some public outcry, he was transferred to the Atlanta Zoo. And he really does paint, even signing his art with a thumbprint.

(Also, if you want to love Katherine Applegate even more, check out this very brief interview with her and her husband, Michael Grant (he is the author of the Gone series and they co-authored the mega-popular Animorphs series back when I was a kid), where they ask Michael what he’d change about Katherine. His response, 

What would I change about Katherine? Seriously, you expect me to suggest
my wife might have a physical flaw? I know you’re newly married, Roger,
but take some advice: don’t ever admit to a flaw in the spouse. You’ll
never hear the end of it. No, no, no, I’m an experienced husband; I’m
not falling for that.)

Copy checked out from my local library

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  • Reply Meridith February 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Speaking of time travel, I see that you read To Say Nothing of the Dog, but have you read Connie Willis' books Blackout and All Clear? So so good.

  • Reply Karen February 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    I've seen this book, but it was not one I was immediately drawn to. However, now I will have to reconsider. It does sound like it would be a good read. And one that several of my grandchildren would enjoy.

  • Reply Tina's Blog February 28, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    This was also a book I wasn't quite sure about, but ended up loving it. I think I might have to read it to my girls when we finish up Hatchet.

  • Reply Kayla February 28, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    I can't wait to read this one. One of the Education faculty here at BYU now has a claim to fame because he grew up near Ivan and shopped at that store regularly as a kid. He saw Ivan all the time! We bought him a copy of the book the week after it won the Newbery as a thanks for giving a presentation at a BYU Reading Council meeting, and he was thrilled. 🙂

  • Reply Rae February 28, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    I live about a mile from the pit of a place they kept him in (Seriously, to call it a mall is like calling a fleabag no-tell motel a Four Seasons. It's a foul place). I've been wondering about this book. My older son is incredibly sensitive to animals not being treated well, so I'll have to read it first, but now I'm looking forward to taking a look. Thanks!

  • Reply Lisa February 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Even your review doesn't make me want to read a book from the point of view of an animal.

  • Reply Momma Miles February 28, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    Reading that snippet of on an interview cracked me up. The man is a genius!

  • Reply KT February 28, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    I don't like animal books either, especially talking animal books, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this one.

  • Reply emi February 28, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    haha love this! i need to get a new book, since i just finished one!
    now following your darling blog!! xo the well-traveled wife

  • Reply Christina February 28, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    I love, love, love this book! Bob is one of my favorite characters ever. I've read it aloud to two fifth grade classes and both were in love with it! And Ii don't like animal books either 🙂

  • Reply becomingbrown March 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    I am not big into children's books yet, as we don't have kids and I can't get the dogs to sit still long enough to read. But. Coming from a long line of librarians makes me love this post and I am putting that book on my list of 'to buy for future children.'

  • Reply Melissa March 1, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    I loved this book as well. It was so well done. I avoid animal books, and I avoid animals in general, but I found myself tied to Ivan and I loved this book from cover to cover!

  • Reply Rachel March 20, 2013 at 12:24 am

    I just finished this one and really liked it, too. I'm usually not a huge fan of children's books in general, but oh, this was just so sweet. I'll even admit to tearing up a little when he finally made some gorilla friends.

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