Book Review: The One And Only Ivan

ivanI want every kid to read this book.  No exceptions.  Every kid.  That’s how wonderful The One And Only Ivan is.  Parents can thank me later. Required reading.  Get a copy for your kids now.  Don’t wait.

Sorry — you need more information than that, you say?  All right, then… permit me to loudly sing the praises of this delightful, charming, smart, sweet, touching and important novel.

I had not experienced the imagination of Katherine Applegate before, and am so pleased that this has been remedied.  This author has a lengthy list of novels credited to her name; many of them part of her Animorphs, Remnants and Everworld series.  In fact, after a little research, it looks like I’m quite late to the Applegate party.  She has authored a truly remarkable list of novels.

The One And Only Ivan is about a wonderful gorilla named Ivan.  Ivan was stolen from the wild when he was very young.  His parents were killed.  His sister died while in transit to their new home.  Ivan, now an adult Silverback,  has lived the bulk of his life in a cage at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  To be exact, he’s been in the cage for “nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days.”  He’s been there so long that he doesn’t quite miss the jungle anymore.  He gets to watch television.  He gets to eat old fruit and yogurt raisins.  He gets to drink soda.

Most importantly, he gets to paint.

Counted among Ivan’s friends at the Big Top Mall are Stella, an older and wiser elephant with an infected foot, and Bob, the stray dog who loves to sleep on Ivan’s belly at night.  Life plods on as the animals watch people pass by their cages, when Ruby, a baby elephant, is suddenly added to the mix.  I don’t want to give away too much, so all I’ll note is that Ivan makes a promise.  He will get Ruby out of her cage.  He will steal her away from her daily “performances.”  Most importantly, he will get her to the safety and the appropriate care of the local Zoo.  He isn’t sure how he’ll do this, but when it dawns on him the best way to make it happen, I promise that your heart will swell.

This book has a lot to say.  It’s about friendship.  It’s about animal rights.  It’s about empathy.  It’s about finding your voice, and standing up for what is right.  The animals of this book are penned with such heart, such love, that you and your child will stand and cheer at the novel’s close.  The illustrations that accompany the story are priceless.  The portions of the book that make you laugh will stay with you forever.  The dialogue is wonderful.

“Shh,” Bob says from his perch on my belly.  “I’m dreaming about chili fries.”

“I’m tired,” I say, “but I’m not sleepy.”

“What are you tired of?” Stella asks.

I think for a while.  It’s hard to put into words.  Gorillas are not complainers.  We’re dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.

“I don’t know exactly.”  I kick at my tire swing.  “I think I may be a little tired of my domain.”

If only every book had protagonists with this much character.  The animals have more profound observations throughout this book than many human counterparts in best-selling novels.  What a treat to read a children’s novel with this level of emotion, and such an important message.  Even better, at no point does this book talk down to its young readers.  I would venture to suggest, rather, that the book’s hope is that it can encourage compassion among the young.  Compassion, and the urge to change the way humans view their animal friends.

I’m changing my suggestion at the top of this review.  I think every adult should read The One And Only Ivan.

5 heartfelt stars, and the happy knowledge that I will read it again one day.  Can’t wait.