If you've worked in kid lit for the past few years, you've likely heard of this book, and you've probably read it. I confess. I didn't. I avoided The One and Only Ivan because the premise - a silverback gorilla who spends 27 years on display in a shopping mall - just seems so sad. And look, there's a cute little elephant who lives at the shopping mall too. How sad. And there's an award sticker on the cover. To paraphrase tween author Gordon Korman, an animal on the front of an award-winning book has absolutely no chance of making it to the end of the story. So I avoided The One and Only Ivan. Don't make my mistake.
The One and Only Ivan is an elegant, simple, complete and perfect book. It won the 2013 Newberry Award, and too many additional awards to keep up with. I'm thinking about making my own award, just so I can give it to Katherine Applegate.
Ivan the gorilla has lived almost all of his life in a display enclosure at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. People come to the mall to see Ivan, and maybe spend a little money while they're there. Also on hand is Stella, an aging circus elephant in poor health, and Bob the stray dog who squeezes into Ivan's cage and provides comic relief in the story. George the mall janitor offers Ivan human company, as does Julie his young daughter (in a role strikingly similar to Charlotte's Web's Fern.) Mack the mall owner frets about the decline in business; the animals just aren't drawing the crowds like they used to.
This strikingly sad (there's that word again) scenario would certainly lead to a depressingly gooey mess in the hands of a less-skilled author. By allowing Ivan to serve as the first-person (or first-gorilla) narrator, Applegate transfers Ivan from a character to be pitied into one to be admired. Ivan's not a victim. He accepts his captivity stoically because he is a proud gorilla. He doesn't want our pity. He rarely thinks about the jungle (he left there as a youngster) and instead focuses on painting, chatting with Bob, people-watching, and watching a little TV. He lives an introverted life, resigned to making the most of his situation.
As readers, we get to watch Ivan transform into a gorilla who thinks beyond himself as he uses his talent and ingenuity to help others. Ivan doesn't realize that he's changing, but readers absorb clues and cheer for his growth. That transformation is at the heart of The One and Only Ivan, and makes it a literary gem.
(And in this case, Korman is wrong. The animals on the cover live happily ever after!)
Additional note: reading levels often influence book selection for tween readers. The One and Only Ivan registers a 3.6, making it well below the reading level of most middle schoolers. Please don't let that hinder your recommendation of this book to even your most advanced readers. The reading level is low because of the short words and brief sentences used by Ivan as narrator. The thoughts are complex; the literary development is complete.