Katherine Applegate's novel is based on the real life story of Ivan the Gorilla, who recently passed away at the age of 50 at the Atlanta Zoo. Ivan and his sister were captured in Democratic Republic of the Congo and sold to a department store owner in Tacoma, WA in 1962. Ivan's sister died, and Ivan lived as a pet until inevitably he became too large for his owners to manage. Ivan was moved to a 14x14 glass and concrete enclosure at the B&I Shopping Center, a circus-themed mall, where he was an attraction for shoppers for 27 years. Debt and public outcry from animal rights' activists led the owner of the store to finally turn Ivan over to a zoo. In 1995, the Atlanta Zoo took custody of Ivan until his death in August 2012.
In Applegate's novel, Ivan leads a monotonous life at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall. For 9,855 days, he has been trapped in a small domain, watching television and staring at the people who visit the mall. He does have friends: Stella, the elderly elephant; Bob, the stray dog that sneaks into his enclosure and sleeps on his stomach; and Julia, the kind daughter of the janitor. His excitement comes from creating art. Whenever Julia slips him crayons and paper, Ivan draws what he sees around him, mostly bananas. When attendance drops at the mall, Mack, the owner, finds a new attraction: Ruby, a baby elephant. Stella has suffered her whole life as a circus performer and knows that the mall circus is no place for Ruby. She makes Ivan swear that he will become Ruby's protector and find a way to get her out. As a mighty silverback gorilla, Ivan takes this responsibility very seriously, but he doesn't know what he can do. Can he use his artistic gift to help Ruby escape the depressing life at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall?
Applegate writes from Ivan's anthropomorphize viewpoint, which strengthens the novel. Gorillas don't talk much, but when they do, they say what is important. Ivan's prose reads like poetry, and his dignified, understated voice can't help but touch the reader's heart. There is much sadness in this short novel, but compassion and art bring about a happy ending for the characters. The One and Only Ivan lives up to all the high praise it has been receiving. This beautiful novel is sure to be in the discussion for this year's Newbery medal.
5 out of 5 stars!
Recommended for grades 4-6