The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is a fictionalized telling of the story of Ivan, the “shopping mall gorilla” of the 1970’s and 80’s. Applegate, author of the Animorphs series, breaks away from serial YA fiction to bring us a first-gorilla account of Ivan’s time in his shopping mall home and his eventual move to a zoo.
Ivan is a witty and delightful main character. I admit that I finished this book on a Wednesday morning and began reading it aloud to my fourth graders that same day. My students enjoyed the gorilla-esque prose as I read, and I was careful to pause and emphasize the shortened, stylized sentences. For skilled readers, the format of the words on the page will be very appealing. (Another teacher in my school downloaded her copy and projected it on her smart board so that her students could see how the format enhanced the character’s voice.)
In the book, Ivan’s story starts with him as an adult, living in the mall menagerie. There are flashback to his childhood in the jungle and his life with various trainers. The story follows his mundane life in the mall into his introduction into zoo life. The ending is open-we know he makes it to a zoo and begins to live life with other gorillas, but we don’t know much beyond that. My students and I did research on the real Ivan to see what happened in his real story and how his zoo life experience was for him after leaving the mall. It was a wonderful follow up after finishing the book. (Ivan passed away at the Atlanta Zoo in 2012, after being a beloved part of the Atlanta Zoo family since 1994.)
There are characters in the book that were not part of the real Ivan’s experience. They help give him a voice and create a context for his story-especially for younger readers. There are references to poaching of gorillas and the how their hands have been sold as ashtrays on the black market. There was also an explanation of the elephant training methods used by some less-humane circuses, including an incident with the baby elephant, Ruby. Additionally, Ivan’s older elephant friend eventually dies due to old injuries sustained in her circus days. HOWEVER, these are not reasons to avoid this book! With the right explanation and openness to discussion, they are wonderful learning moments for kids. One of my students even made reference to Charlotte’s Web and The Jungle Book when we were talking about these moments in class. Kids that have been exposed to most children’s literature have the context for these moments…as adults, we sometimes forget that.
I highly recommend The One and Only Ivan for mid- to upper-elementary grades. It is a wonderful independent read and a fantastic book to read along with your child and discuss. A quick internet search will produce all kinds of information on the real Ivan for follow up discussions with your kids.