Ivan is a silverback gorilla who lives in a mall with Stella the elephant and Bob the stray dog. According to his count, Ivan’s occupied his cage/domain for 9,855 days. Times have changes, people hardly come to see him. His keeper, Mac, says it’s because he’s not cute anymore. But Ivan tries. His artwork, paintings of things he sees – drawings, bananas, beetles – go for $20.
I assumed Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan would take some warming up to since it’s told in the first “person” voice of a gorilla. Talking animals don’t hold my attention unless there’s a squirmy little niece on my lap demanding yet another monkey story. Fraggles are their own species so they don’t count, in case you’re wondering.
It took no time at all to see why Applegate won the Newbery Medal for this not entirely heartbreaking book, based on the true story of a gorilla who lived most of his 50-year life in a Tacoma shopping center.
Time passes slowly for the animals, but Stella’s perfect memory makes her an excellent storyteller. Things shift when Mac unloads his newest money maker, Ruby, a baby elephant. It hurts the animals to see the cycle continued, yet another baby captured and taken from her family, no longer in the wild.
Ivan watches Ruby endure harsh training and remembers his own early years. Mac raised him almost like a child until one day:
I grew bigger. I became what I was meant to be, too large for chairs, too strong for hugs, too big for human life.
Ivan is a wild animal trapped in a tame, concrete world, but he can still keep a promise and Stella knows it. That’s why she has him promise to watch over Ruby.
As an adult reading this quietly to myself, it was nice to be reminded that animals are incredible and deserve to be treated that way. The story doesn’t gloss over the back story of how the animals came to be caged up, or the cruel treatment people can inflict. Stella, Ivan and Ruby all share the memory of being hunted down, seeing family killed and ending up in a small, indoor cage.
So yes, this story will hit you in the place that feels, but it’s a beautiful tale that’s told with love. Probably a perfect book to read to children as long as you’re ready for questions that don’t have easy or pretty answers. Ivan’s voice reads as strangely authentic, whether he’s describing his art process or feeling introspective. I guess Applegate has what they call Skillz (capitalized and misspelled for super emphasis).
Also the illustrations are perty cool.