“Ivan, I want you to promise me something,” Stella says.
“Anything,” I say.
“I’ve never asked for a promise before, because promises are forever, and forever is an unusually long time. Especially when you’re in a cage.”
I straighten to my full height, “I promise, Stella,” I say in a voice like my father’s.
“But you haven’t even heard what I’m asking yet,” she says and she closes her eyes for a moment.Her great chest shudders.
“I promise anyway.” (Applegate, P. 111-12)
I found The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate on a list of great read aloud books for kids. It said it was a picture book, so I never bothered to look into it more. I know now that by “picture book”, the person reviewing the novel actually meant to say it has a handful of small drawings scattered throughout. I would estimate ten or less that don’t even cover a sixth of the page. A coworker and friend of mine read the book and had it on her desk. She recently suggested it to our assistant principal to read with the simple statement: “Everyone needs an Ivan.” It must have been something about the way she said it or how smiled with such admiration from just thinking about this imaginary character. In that recommendation, she not only recommended it to our principal, but also myself. I had to read this novel.
The One and Only Ivan is about a Silverback gorilla named Ivan that lives in a circus exhibit inside Big Top Mall and Arcade. Ivan is a simple gorilla who likes to relax, eat bananas, and draw pictures of bananas. One of my favorite characteristics about Ivan is that he states upfront that gorillas like to save their words for when they are really important; humans like to use as many words as they can. Every word in this novel is carefully chosen to make an impact. Ivan’s narration is simple, yet extremely powerful when you look at how he views words. Applegate’s writing in the narration of this story is simple: It is as if gorillas could actually talk. They are smart, yet they are still innocent and have limited experience. Ivan is honest about the experiences he does have and how he views the world around him.
Rosie is purchased when the circus show starts to go under. She is a baby elephants and who doesn’t love a baby? Rosie is in the cage next to Ivan with the other elephant, an older girl named Stella. Stella used to work for a circus and was abused there. As a result, she has a foot that never healed right and frequently gets infected. This makes it hard for her to perform and make money, so Rosie is brought as a new attraction. Ivan also has another friend, Bob, who is a stray dog that stays with him at night. Bob is a great character who is extremely sarcastic, but Applegate also uses Bob to make comments on the nature of the world. He is brutally honest and often comments on the cruelty of the world or extremely obvious observations about life that Ivan is too simple to make. For young readers, Bob is funny. For older readers, Bob is a philosopher.
An accident happens during on of the shows that causes Stella to ask for the promise I opened this post with. Ivan makes his first promise to Stella, that he will save Rosie. Ivan goes to work preparing a masterpiece to save Rosie. With the help of the janitors daughter, Julia, who brings Ivan fingers paints and paper, Ivan begins to paint a picture that he hopes will save Rosie’s life. Ivan works day and night to paint the picture, hiding his drawing when the mall owner, Mack, is around. Finally, when he feels that he has accomplished his goal, he gives his papers to Julia, hoping that with her artistic eye, she can make heads and tails of his gorilla drawing. The exchanges between Julia and Ivan are interesting because sometimes you forget that this is a gorilla and a young child interacting. It feels more genuine than that. Applegate’s writing suggests that, even though they can’t talk, Julia and Ivan are friends. And friends they are.
With a little time and patience, Ivan starts to see the fruit of his labor. I recently read a quote that said, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow” (Mary Anne Radmacher). This quote is Ivan. Ivan is courageous. Each day, Ivan watches and paints a few more pictures and hides them. He is courageous because Ivan is doing something not-Ivan. He is painting from his mind, something that makes him uncomfortable. Each day, Ivan has to return to his work. Finally, when Ivan feels that all hope is lost, zoologist and vets come to the zoo to rescue Ivan and shut down the Big Top Mall. Ivan not only saves Rosie, but Ivan is also able to save himself and in that, find something he has never had before in his life: a pack of gorillas to truly be a Silverback with.
I love the ending of this novel because it is almost a little tense until it ends, but it ends really happy. I love what Ivan gets in the end, as well as Rosie and Bob. I was so worried about little Bob in the end of this novel! This book is a great touch on humanitarianism and treating animals right, but it’s much more than that. It’s about sacrificing for people you love and doing something for someone else, no matter what it costs you. It’s about keeping your promises, no matter how much you want to give up. It’s about friendship and acceptance. It’s never too late to do what you always wanted to do. I cannot express enough how powerful this novel is. I wanted to cry frequently (I refrained as I was in class) and I smiled often. Applegate’s writing is so thoughtful and concise it is hard to imagine this book was written for children. Her means of developing personality individually in each character shows a different virtue our world needs more of–especially giving and caring and protecting our friends and family. As Bob frequently reminds Ivan, he is the One and Only. At the end of this book, Ivan lives up to that potential. He is Ivan. And he is great.
Why I loved it:
I loved this book because it was very deep. It made me question and think a lot as I was reading it. It’s also, despite the sadness in the beginning, a very sweet story. Ivan is simple and you love Ivan for his simplicity. He made a promise and sticks to it. I finished this book in a school day.
Why My Kids Loved It:
While I was reading, my students who read it said, “Oh, that’s sad, but that’s such a good book.” For a student, they are not going to dig into the philosophical Bob as much as an adult. They see a gorilla who made a promise and who kept it. It’s also on a lower reading level, so lower students will feel successful with this novel.
Quick and Dirty, 160 Character Review:
Fabulous book about possibility and friendship. Ivan is memorable and one-of-a-kind.
Happy Reading! Go be someone’s Ivan today and change a life!