A Silverback’s Promise: The One and Only IvanThe One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Published by Harper Collins on January 17th 2012
Genres: Animals, Apes, Monkeys, etc, Fantasy, Friendship, Middle Grade, Social Issues, Zoos
Pages: 336

Winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal and a #1 New York Times bestseller, this stirring and unforgettable novel from renowned author Katherine Applegate celebrates the transformative power of unexpected friendships. Inspired by the true story of a captive gorilla known as Ivan, this illustrated novel is told from the point-of-view of Ivan himself. Having spent 27 years behind the glass walls of his enclosure in a shopping mall, Ivan has grown accustomed to humans watching him. He hardly ever thinks about his life in the jungle. Instead, Ivan occupies himself with television, his friends Stella and Bob, and painting. But when he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from the wild, he is forced to see their home, and his art, through new eyes.The One and Only Ivan was hailed as a best book of the year by Kirkus, School Library Journal, and Amazon, demonstrating it is a true classic in the making. In the tradition of timeless stories like Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan's unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope. An author's note depicts the differences between the fictional story and true events.Supports the Common Core State Standards

Suggested age range: 8 and up

When the Newbery winner was announced for 2012, and I realized I had not read the awarded book, I quickly remedied the situation and settled down to read Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. The story reminded me a little of The Magician’s Elephant, another fantasy novel you would do well to read, if you have not. Currently, we are reading Applegate’s book aloud in my 8th grade English classroom.

First, however, a few words about Ivan.

“I was born in a place humans call central Africa, in a dense rain forest so beautiful, no crayons could ever do it justice.”

Ivan is a gorilla. He is a friend to an elephant and a stray dog, an observer of humans, and an artist. He lives in a mall.

“I have been in my domain for nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days. Alone.”

If you haven’t met Ivan, you can expect your life to be changed when you do. This novel about a gorilla who lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video arcade is truly a winner. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s humorous and moving. It is a work of children’s literature that will engage your heart—it is a story with the potential to nurture the spirit of the reader.

“I know what most humans think. They think gorillas don’t have imaginations. They think we don’t remember our pasts or ponder our futures.”

Ivan is no ordinary gorilla. He watches television, spends time with his dear friends, Stella, an old elephant who also performs at the mall, and Bob, a stray dog. The trio bond as each day illuminates the same routine—show after show, day after day–for the humans who come to view the animals. Stella is an important figure to Ivan as she mentors, encourages, and challenges him.

“Stella says she is sure I will see another real, live gorilla someday, and I believe her because she is even older than I am and has eyes like black stars and knows more than I will ever know.”

Furthermore, Ivan is an artist. He loves to draw, and his drawings catch quite a penny in the mall gift shop. In this first person narrative, Ivan’s thoughts and observations about the world reflect a character we quickly grow to love.

At one point in the story, the animals realize a new arrival is on its way—another friend to join them. When Ruby, a young elephant arrives, Ivan takes it upon himself to be her protector. With Stella’s encouragement, Ivan begins to wonder whether there is another life for Ruby—a life beyond the monotony of performing for humans at the mall in show after show, day after day. Will Ivan’s friendship and his artistic creations be enough to help Ruby?

“ ‘I’ve always been an artist. I love drawing.’ ‘Why do you love it?’ Ruby asks. I pause. I’ve never talked to anyone about this before. ‘When I’m drawing a picture, I feel…quiet inside.’”

How will the different relationships Ivan has cultivated at the mall change as the story unfolds? These are questions for you, dear reader, to ponder as you experience Applegate’s novel. Rather than share my thoughts about the end of the novel, I will refrain, so that you can be surprised.

The One and Only Ivan raises multiple significant themes, including the idea that compassion for others leads to action and intervening on their behalf. The story suggests that expressing our creativity in surprising ways can lead to transformational experiences that bring hope and love to others. The relationships among the characters communicates the idea that our connections with others are vital, life changing and can affect us in ways we do not expect.

You will surely want to meet The One and Only Ivan, winner of this year’s Newbery medal.

What Katie Read