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Finding Humanity through a Gorilla


TITLE: The One and Only Ivan

AUTHOR: Katherine Applegate

LENGTH: 300 pages

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins Children’s Books

SUMMARY: (theoneandonlyivan.com) Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

BRIDGE: It is a rare book that can make one want to be a better human. Applegate is able to do this through the story of Ivan and Ruby. By the end of this book, I was thinking about all the ways in which I could try to help make others’ lives better. Ivan’s heart is bigger than his body and he is surviving day to day loving the ones who love him. He and Stella bond over their shared disappointment in the lives they’ve been handed. He is loyal to her just as he is loyal to Mack even though he has no reason to be. While Stella is resigned to her lot and Bob is the resident cynic, one gets the feeling that Ivan has never considered that there could be something more. He has been in this stagnant environment for so long that he too has become stagnant. It takes a series of events that are world-shattering for Ivan to show Him that he can want more and deserves more. It’s a book about possibilities and the idea that hope and love are the most powerful emotions of which humans are capable to effect change.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around this book but I am CERTAIN that kids must be introduced to Ivan and Ruby. Kids also need to understand and experience compassion. Because its cover may not appeal to some students, my first impulse is to use it as a read aloud. Which I will be doing as soon as we’re finished with The Misfits. One could also use it to teach voice and to illustrate the power of sentence structure and word choice. The simplicity of the writing is part of its beauty. It would be a great title with which to introduce magical realism to younger audiences. And, of course, this is an excellent text with which to tackle theme.

This is a book for teaching lessons about being a human-that subtext of instruction that we all know we must teach but that sometimes is more elusive than multiplication facts. Ivan teaches sympathy and empathy and loyalty. He shows us that persevering has rewards. Ivan proves that a promise can make all the difference. Students need to see Ivan succeed and revel in both his sorrows and his joys.

Sadly, the real Ivan has died. Take a look at this article from The Seattle Times for more information.

READERS: This book will appeal to young and old alike. It’s a book that crosses dividing lines. Male and female readers will cheer for Ivan. Fans of fantasy will enjoy it as much as realistic fiction devotees.

OTHER TITLES: I’m not sure there’s a pure pairing for Ivan’s story. A more mature text that is more philosophical but deals with many of the same issues is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Other books that come to mind are We Bought a Zoo, a memoir by Benjamin Mee and Kate DiCamillo’s books Because of Winn Dixie or even The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.


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