Brilliant and Moving: The One And Only Ivan

Two of my recent posts have invoked the Newbery Medal, awarded annually to the best new children’s book by an American author — one featured older Newbery winners, and the other the book that should have won last year.

And here’s the book that I predicted would win this year and DID!

ivanThe One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate (lexile: NA; AR book level: 3.6; 305 pp)

I am Ivan.  I am a gorilla.
It’s not as easy as it looks.

Ivan is a gorilla of few words.  Humans, he says, waste words, tossing them “like banana peels,” left to rot.  And so Ivan tells his story in spare, almost poetic, prose, wasting nothing.

For 27 years Ivan has lived at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  Once a wild gorilla, Ivan barely remembers being taken as an infant from the jungle.  Now he lives in his “domain,” surrounded on three sides by glass walls.  His friends are Stella, an aging former circus elephant caged next to him; Bob, a stray dog who comes at night to sleep on Ivan’s belly because it’s warm; and Julia, the daughter of the mall janitor, who sits in front of Ivan’s domain each evening while her father cleans, drawing pictures.

It’s Julia who discovers that Ivan, like her, is an artist, and she keeps him supplied with crayons and paper.  Ivan’s pictures sell for $20 in the mall gift shop, but he doesn’t care; he draws for himself.

From his domain, Ivan can see the billboard along the highway advertising the mall.  There’s a picture of Stella, Mack, the owner, and an

“angry animal with fierce eyes and unkempt hair.  That animal is supposed to be me, but the artist made a mistake.  I am never angry.

Anger is precious.  A silverback uses anger to maintain order … When my father beat his chest, it was to say, Beware, listen, I am in charge.  I am angry to protect you, because that is what I was born to do.

Here in my domain, there is no one to protect.”

That is, until Ruby comes along.  Ruby is a baby elephant, brought in to revive attendance at the failing mall.  Frightened and lonely, Ruby is mothered by Stella, who asks Ivan for a promise: that he will somehow find a different future for Ruby.  To keep that promise, Ivan will need to remember the mighty silverback he was born to be, and use his artistic ability to communicate as never before.

The One and Only Ivan is a beautiful, warm, superbly-written tale, simple and yet profound, that will appeal (like so many great books) to both kids and adults. There is some sadness, but the ending makes it worth the journey.  And it was inspired by a real Ivan, a gorilla who lived for 27 years in a shopping mall in Washington.  You can read about the real Ivan at Katherine Applegate’s site here — but read the book first.


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