I don't enjoy animal books. Occasionally a book will come along that causes me to eat these words (The Tale of Despereaux, The Cheshire Cheese Cat). Usually animal books simply remind me of all the reasons I don't enjoy animal books. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate doesn't quite fall into the category of the former, but it is far removed from the latter.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Ivan is an easygoing
gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has
grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his
domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever
thinks about it at all.
Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends
Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan
thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of
leaves with color and a well-placed line.
Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she
makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby
arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change
for the better.
What impressed me the most about this novel was the characterization, which says a lot considering I'm not easily impressed by animal characters. In the beginning of the story Ivan is a pretty content gorilla. He is content because he lives in the moment, not giving much consideration to the past or the future. He is a little snarky and doesn't give much thought to the world outside of Ivan. Much like the kids who will be reading his story. Once he begins to examine his life and see it through the eyes of young Ruby he begins to question things. The questioning leads to a desire to make a difference which leads to Ivan discovering the best way to use his own personal talents to make that difference. He has to face major changes to his life and environment. This is a coming of age story told from the point of view of a gorilla. Way to go Katerine Applegate! I had no idea that could be done, never mind done so well. The other animal characters are endearing, but not as interesting. Bob, the stray dog who is Ivan's best friend, provides comedy relief. Stella, the older elephant, provides the sadness and motivation for change. Ruby serves her purpose by being adorable and engendering sympathy.
I appreciated how the humans were characterized in the story. There are good humans, there are bad humans, but it is not as simple as good/bad. George is definitely one of the good guys. He cares for the animals. He wants what is best for them, but he also has a family and he needs his job, so doesn't work as quickly or effectively as he should to intervene on the animal's behalf. Mack is definitely one of the bad guys. What he has done to Ivan, Ruby, and Stella is inexcusable. Yet even he is shown as a person with complex feelings and motivations. He is not a mustache twirling villain with a evil laugh. He is human.
This is a book about the ethical and proper treatment of animals. By giving them personality and emotion, Applegate has given animals everywhere a voice. If your child reads this book, expect questions about the treatment of any animal you see in any type of captivity. This book is one that may lead to activism in young ones. Not a bad thing at all, especially when you consider the number of animals that are mistreated by their owners and handlers for the sake of profit. I liked how Applegate, while addressing zoos are not the best place for wild animals (the wild is), acknowledged the important and often life saving role they play. There were a couple of points where I felt I was being lectured, but this may be the adult in me.
The language of the story flows well and is to the point. The book doesn't waste words and is a quick and easy read. It is one of those books that make an ideal read aloud, particularly for younger elementary students.
While I think this book has plenty of child appeal, as well as being excellently written, I'm currently testing that theory. Bit saw the cute baby elephant and surly looking gorilla on the cover and immediately wanted to read it too.