The One and Only Ivan



The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate won the Newbery Medal for the 2012 publishing year with good reason.  Written from the perspective of a gorilla named Ivan whose life is circumscribed by his glass cage in a rather grimy shopping mall, the story moves along in miniature chunks and very small chapters, bit by bit.  At first, there's plenty of time to get used to the voice of a gorilla as narrator; not much happens for awhile except the dour and repetitive life of the main attractions in a failing shopping center, and Ivan's companion Stella the elephant also begins to fail physically in her old age.  But then, with the introduction of a new baby elephant, Ivan's wistful loneliness as he longs for gorilla companionship turns to urgency.  Mack, the owner of the place and Ivan's one-time human "dad" (before he grew to be an enormous silverback), begins to threaten to abuse Ruby, the new baby elephant.  These are difficult issues, and, despite the fictionalized gorilla voice, they are handled fairly realistically, especially when Stella the elephant dies in her cage.  But Ivan is determined to save Ruby from this fate.  He is an artist, using crayons and then fingerpaints to draw the world around him and then to draw a world of his imagination for the billboard outside, which he hopes will attract attention to Ruby's plight.

There's a happy ending, but a lot of suspense along the way, which is especially impressive given how short and succinct each chapter is.  The animal banter is engaging, especially when the little "homeless-by-choice" dog, Bob, gets involved in the dialogue.  But the real treat here comes in the afterword, when we learn that this is a fictionalized version of some factual events.  A gorilla who liked to draw and paint was indeed rescued from a shopping mall, and it is his story upon which Ivan's tale is based.  Children's authors have engaged in interesting factual/fictional experimentation more in recent years, but Applegate takes this odd between-genres genre to newly accessible and engaging heights.

While this goes as young as about fourth-grade level, the story itself would reach all ages, with special appeal to animal lovers everywhere.