“The One and Only Ivan”

One & Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

While tidying the children’s section of the library, I noticed the most recent Newbery Award-winner on the shelf, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  I was curious to read this one because I knew it dealt with the true story of a gorilla kept as part of a circus exhibit in a mall; and you know how I gravitate towards a circus theme.  I scooped it up & had it read in a few hours, mostly because of the giant margins, prints, and illustrations, rather than an enthralling storyline.  Don’t get me wrong.  It was a perfectly good book; it just didn’t captivate me.

Unsurprisingly, the mall circus attraction is utterly depressing.  It is comprised of separate glass enclosures for Ivan and Stella the elephant, as well as the occasional appearances from Bob—itinerant dog who likes to sneak into Ivan’s enclosure and nap on his stomach.  When ticket sales dwindle, a baby elephant named Ruby is purchased for the show, and Ivan makes it his mission to save her from a lifetime of roadside captivity.  Told from Ivan’s point of view, we learn his history and see him grow as he begins to recognize that his life in an “enclosure” is truly a “caged” existence.

This book will appeal to animal-lovers and fans of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, though it does not produce the same emotional resonance as these last two titles. It is possible the larger concepts of “good” and “bad” and death that operate in The One and Only Ivan are easier for young readers to contemplate from its more distanced standpoint; however, I felt I was looking in at a the story  through a pane of glass—always slightly removed.

What I liked best about this book was Ivan’s notion of himself as an “artist.”  It is an important part of his identity that plays a crucial role in the plot from beginning to end.  His paintings, which are sold in the mall gift shop, mirror his personal growth as they go from simple renditions of bananas to expressive works of art and the key to his plan of escape.

Though I am behind in my reading, I think I can safely say that this will not be the best book you read this year.

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