The One and Only Ivan when it was released and later won the Newbery Medal (along with numerous other awards). As a result, it made it on my "to read" list...it just took me a while to get around to it.
From a high level, there's an element of being "based on a true story" in that there was a real Gorilla on a billboard and in a less than happy zoo-life in an mall. There some opportunities for editorializing as we learn about the hunting and capture of animals and of the treatment of some animals...but mostly this is definitely a fictional account. That said, there are elements that are harshly real and could certainly trouble young readers (even though it is geared towards younger readers).
Part of the hook, as you'll find early on, is that the book is narrated by Ivan, the gorilla. Ivan is a gorilla who was captured young and has virtually no memory of life outside of captivity. Through Ivan's eyes we see his understanding of himself and his world increase as he interacts with and observes friends/neighbors (an old elephant named Stella, a stray dog named Bob, a baby elephant named Ruby and the humans outside his enclosure). Ivan has a very unique voice that is sometimes heart wrenching, some times frustrating and often endearing. The author creates a wonderful voice of innocence, simplicity and curiosity.
The main plot felt predictable to me at times but did have a few unexpected twists and turns that made me smile. And even as the plot moved along as I expected it to, I found myself enjoying the journey thanks to the wonderful narrator and the great characters. Even the human zookeeper, who you might think we are supposed to despise, was created in such a way that you feel compassion for him and the struggles he's going through. Although this story is told from the point of view of the animals, it is a wonderful exploration of emotions, kindness and human nature (or any other creature). Most of the "animal" stories that kids (and adults) interact with these days are slapstick silliness without getting into any depth. Ivan goes more than just skin deep and really stirs your thoughts and emotions.
Sitting at around 300 pages, this could be a daunting read for a young reader and may be something worth reading aloud with them rather than having them read solo (especially because of the tragic elements in the story) but the simple narrative style makes it a fast and easy enough read that most grade-schoolers should be comfortable reading.
Overall I really enjoyed this book and recommended it to my daughter as a reading book for her free reading time in class. The story is filled with humor, loss, growth and learning. All in all, it's a good read and makes me want to seek out more from Applegate.
4 out of 5 stars
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