The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate may be fiction, but it’s based on a real gorilla who was closed up in a bare cage at a circus-themed shopping mall for 27 years. I knew it well. Ivan lived a couple miles from me when I was a kid. I saw him many times in his small, lonely, steel and concrete cell. And I remember the day he was sent to a modern zoo to live with other gorillas.
It was that personal connection alone that led me to pick up this book recently, but I’m very glad I did. It’s the best story for kids (elementary to pre-teen) I’ve read in a long time.
Applegate took real Ivan’s plight and constructed a good, heartwarming story around it. She changed the location, added elephants and a dog to the cast of characters, and fictionalized the details. Anyone who reads it should know, however, that some of the broad strokes of the story are true, including its happy ending.
In Applegate’s book, Ivan tells you his story himself. The simple, clipped language in short paragraphs and chapters comes across quite believably as the thoughts of a gorilla. He tells the mostly sad story of his life (and others around him) with an innocent outlook that seems accurate for an animal whose only experience with the outdoors and other gorillas exist only as long-ago memories. It’s a perspective and a rhythm that takes a few chapters to cozy to, but it doesn’t feel artificial and it doesn’t become overly dramatic. It works. It’s that narrative style that might make the sad first half of the book more comforting. It softens the blows, all the while turning young readers into complete and loyal fans of Ivan, Bob (a dog), Julia (a girl) and Ruby (an elephant).
That’s when the story takes a gentle turn — reminiscent of Charlotte’s Web — and begins its march toward better days. Some kids might shed a sorrowful tear now and then during the first half of the book, but they’ll be bawling their happy little eyes out by the end. You might, too. Have tissues on hand.
NOTE TO PARENTS READING TO CHILDREN: It’s easy to like the main characters in this book. They don’t know what the future will be and they don’t know what they’re capable of, but they say kind things, look out for one another, and find their own strength. For those reasons alone, it’s a good story for kids. But it’s also an excellent story to demonstrate how differently animals have been treated over the years and how zoos should be more about the animals’ well-being than crass spectacles for humans. You may also want to know that the book raises the topic of death a couple of times, including those of a sister and a friend. On pages 170-171, there are short but somewhat graphic passages about the murder of Ivan’s parents and the use of gorilla body parts. In no way do I wish to scare you away from this book or even skip those pages when reading with children, but it may be best to know the subject is coming.
NOTE ABOUT THE REAL IVAN: Ivan didn’t have other animal friends to “talk” to during those 27 years, but he did paint. He finally left the store in 1994, after media exposure and protests. Ivan lived out his days at Zoo Atlanta with other gorillas. He died in August, 2012, at age 50. The store still stands. In fact, after all these years Ivan’s picture is still on the sign out front (shown above, behind the book).
PHOTO © Steve Campion