The One and Only Ivan
by Katherine Applegate, published 2012
“Gorillas are not complainers. We’re dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.”
The tears are barely dry on my cheeks as I write this. Reading The One and Only Ivan was both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. The book came highly recommended to me by my friend Laurie, the school librarian, who was thrilled it had just won the Newbery prize. Still, as I began the book, I had grave doubts. It seemed too real, too depressing, too upsetting for a children’s book. I’m one who cries at Bambi, after all.
However, there’s a distinct turning point in the book, where you feel the characters gain strength, you feel they will overcome their cages. And finally, in the ending scenes, you get to experience their fullness of heart, their magnificence as animals. And at the end, it’s impossible not to cry–out of joy, out of relief.
It’s a tall order for a children’s book. Applegate pulls it off with her very simple, almost haiku-like writing. Perhaps in fact it is the starkness of the writing that makes the book so emotional. The facts of the animals in a mall-circus, without any natural life for them, is told so directly, that it hits you in the gut.
I don’t really agree that the book is for 8 year olds, and I noticed one Amazon reviewer recommending that it be read-aloud for children under 8. There’s no way I would offer it to such a young child. Granted the language is somewhat easy for the 9 to 12-year-olds, but the emotional content is way too strong for a younger child, even though the message is a wonderful one- animals deserve humane treatment. I wouldn’t want to rock a young child’s world with a children’s book that implies this doesn’t always happen, even though, in fact, it doesn’t. However, older children will take a great message from this, and for that reason, it’s very worthy of all the awards that have been bestowed.
Thanks to reader Amelie for adding the following comments:
I love Ivan’s unique voice . He feels very realistic, telling about how he feels about his life. I think choosing to write this story from Ivan’s perspective really changes the way the reader thinks about Ivan’s problems and hopes. I think the chapters are easy to understand and are written in a way that makes you want to know more about Ivan. For example :” I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It is not as easy as it looks.”