Picture a mall. Can you see shops? Food? Kids? A billboard? How about a gorilla? Ivan the silverback lives in a small domain inside the Exit 8 Big Top Mall. Ivan’s closest friends are Bob, a stray dog and Stella, an elephant. Ivan hasn’t seen another gorilla since his sister Tag died on their way to the United States from Africa.
Ivan loves art. He first discovered crayons thanks to Julia, the mall janitor’s daughter. Ivan always draws things that are real, things that he can see around him. Many of the pictures are of food or leftover bits of food. Bananas are one of his favorite subjects. When Mack, the Big Top Mall owner, discovers Ivan’s artistic habits, he begins selling the pictures.
The mall isn’t doing well when Mack brings in a new elephant, a baby named Ruby. Stella is very worried for the kind of life this youngester will face. When Stella falls ill and is dying she makes Ivan promise to care for Ruby, to see she makes it to a better place than the mall.
Ruby brings new life to Ivan. Watching Westerns and romances is no longer enough. Living in a day to day haze is no longer enough. Her questions lead Ivan to remember. For years, not remembering has been Ivan’s habit. He prefers not to think of his past, either with his family in Africa or as a young gorilla who didn’t have to stay confined to the mall. But soon he is telling what he does remember of the past to Ruby.
The young elephant also brings a new urgency to Ivan’s art. He paints picture after picture, each one a seeming blob of color when seen alone. He hides them around his domain, especially after Mack discovers Ivan can paint. All the little pictures lead toward one goal, but will anyone understand what Ivan is telling in his art?
As a reader, I have cried at perhaps a handful of titles in my life. The One and Only Ivan is one of them. Katherine Applegate’s novel so compelled me that I finished it up in one sentence. It is a beautiful book about friendship and endurance. Ivan, Stella, Bob and Ruby fall into their readers’ hearts. Filled with pain, this is also a book of hope and the bonds between those who care about each other.
Told in a sequence of short chapters, this book could make a great read aloud for upper elementary school students. The One and Only Ivan is a truly remarkable book that begs to be shared. Possible classroom connections include animal rights and activism. Students could also learn about the real Ivan the book was based upon and how animals acclimate to new surroundings after a rescue.