The One and Only Ivan is a thick book – 304 pages from end to end. It is a continuation of a trend in children’s literature I noticed with J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books. Those books grew and grew as the series went on. They eventually reached near-biblical proportions, although onion skin was not required to get the pages between the covers. I remember popular media discussion of their length and how it was amazing that kids were reading books that long. It is heartening that editors and publishers are respecting the tastes and interests of young deep readers who can handle long, sophisticated texts like Potter and the Septimus Heap series.

I opened this book with those thoughts in mind. When I cracked the covers of The One and Only Ivan, I was surprised to find a lot of air on those pages. The typeface size is big – I’d estimated 14 points or larger. My children have misplaced my pica stick from my newspaper days or I’d just measure it. (The pica stick was irresistibly transparent.) The book also contains large illustrations, generous margins and quadruple spacing between paragraphs. It gives the pages a breezy, accessible look, which would be inviting for an older struggling reader. So when I commenced with the reading, I wasn’t expecting much complexity. The illustration on the front cover shows the animals stylized so much so that I wondered if they were stuffed, and after all it is a children’s book.

It wasn’t too long before I realized that this was children’s literature in the mold of C.S. Lewis, Harper Lee, and Mark Twain. It is written on two levels. Children can read this story and love it. They will connect with Ivan and his voiceless protests of powerlessness and injustice. He is helpless and voiceless like many children – even those in loving homes. Adults would do well to think of Ivan as they boss their own children about. Young readers will weep for Tag and for Stella and for Ruby’s possible future, just as I did.

But it also is an adult story. It is a parable to instruct us in the many ways that mankind has abused its mastery over the beasts of the world. It is a cautionary tale of how absolute power corrupts, and it is a sweet, sweet love story that gives a lovely demonstration of the power of hope and the beauty of adopted parenthood in the most trying and hopeless of circumstances.

Having looked at those air-filled pages, I did not expect to read this text deeply. But did I ever. I was dragged down to the deepest of reading and meaning making in this story from the very first lines.

“I am Ivan. I am a gorilla

“It’s not as easy as it looks …

“Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot” (Applegate, 2012).

Ivan is so critical, so sarcastic and so much in denial of his own circumstances and his emotions. I wondered from the beginning why he would not remember his past and why he kept his anger so carefully in check. It was there, clear from his words. When he says, “humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say” (p. 3), he is clearly angry and disgusted.

But not too far along in the book past that he voices the contradiction. “The freeway billboard has a drawing of Mack in his clown clothes and Stella on her hind legs and an angry animal with fierce eyes and unkempt hair. That animal is supposed to be me, but the artist made a mistake. I am never angry.” He is very clearly angry, and equally clearly unaware of it.

Despite his suppresed anger, Applegate infuses Ivan’s language with a lyrical beauty. He speaks often in simile for vivid imagery. Just a few examples include, “I am mightier than any human, four hundred pounds of pure power. My body looks made for battle. My arms, outstretched, span taller than the tallest human (p.4) …I used to have a neighbor, a sleek and thoughtful seal … Her voice was like the throaty bark of a dog chained outside on a cold night (p. 11) …Our circus doesn’t migrate. We sit where we are, like an old beast too tired to push on (p. 13) …Bob’s tail makes me dizzy and confused … Gorillas don’t have any use for tails. Our feelings are uncomplicated. Our rumps are unadorned” (p. 35).

Ivan is so much in denial, and yet so aware. It is one of several ways he exhibits a dual personality. He has mature adult perceptions and conversations with Stella, and yet he is a child. His plan to increase business when no one comes to the circus for two days is to eat more food. Perfect childhood logic there; he’s noticed people like to watch him eat, so he will eat more. Does it occur to him that more food means more expenses for Mack, compounding the circus’ difficulties? Having hatched his plan, he thinks, “That should make Mack happy” (p. 33). The meaning of that passage can go two ways. Read with a childish sense of accomplishment, it shows the innocence of youth. Read with a sarcastic edge, it takes on an “I’ll fix him” tone. Later, this food theme resurfaces when the circus is in terrible trouble and Ivan notices that Ruby is not being fed enough.

For that and other thoughtless acts of neglect and cruelty, Mack is my least favorite. He is to me an unforgivable character. He lets Stella die a senseless, slow and agonizing death. This is not without precedence. He let the seal who had eaten 100 pennies die, as well. He handles his worry and fears by yelling at the animals. He uses the claw-stick on Ruby and takes to drink. The drink reference is well-veiled. Most children will read right by it without a second thought. He takes advantage of Ivan’s art work without any appreciation or creativity. He is to me – totally unsympathetic. I think student readers will hate Mack. They are much more black-and-white, and they will not look for nuance in their feelings. But neither did I, really.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It is a powerful, complex text that I’m sure I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come.

Follow-Ups

I can see that this would be a powerful text for classroom use. It could tie into social studies and science content areas. Tie it into social studies with exploration of mankind’s treatment of animals from domestication to modern human-caused extinction. It would then make a perfect transition into study of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Pair it with science and it could link to study of ecosystems. What ecosystem would Ivan live in if he were still a wild gorilla? What about Stella or the parrots?

As for webpages, here are a few possible options.

Zoo Atlanta’s gorilla information page http://www.zooatlanta.org/home/animals/mammals/gorilla

An article about gorillas and Ivan on the Zoo Atlanta page  http://www.zooatlanta.org/home/article_content/gorilla_milestones

A very short YouTube video of the real Ivan at the Atlanta Zoo. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewJLlu3lddo

Printable “National Geographic” Gorilla Coloring Book    http://www.nationalgeographic.com/coloringbook/gorillas.html

The video from “National Geographic” that sparked the idea for this book

http://shop.nationalgeographic.com/ngs/product/dvds/animals-and-nature/animals-and-wildlife/the-urban-gorilla-video?prevNav=true

Article from newspaper in Washington state about Ivan and the new book.

http://www.thenewstribune.com/2012/05/11/v-lite/2139670/look-into-the-mind-of-lakewoods.html

The level of this book at online children’s book review sites was grades 3 to 6. That is a useless measure. I pasted a longer paragraph from p. 133 into Word and its Flesch-Kincaid level was listed at 6.4 So I would say this is a sixth grade second semester book.

I can see how you could use the Scholastic online tool as a part of a book study. You could read The One and Only Ivan out loud to the class as a part of a thematic unit. The Scholastic book tool could be used to find an assortment of books on various grade levels within the theme that span the independent reading levels of the class.  Books should span a variety of genres and include fiction and nonfiction as well.

Students could then select a book of their own to read related to the theme and complete enrichment activities afterward based on their books.

This could lead to ample modeling activities as the students could do book talks, reader’s theater, art responses and book clubs. If you related this to a content area like social studies or science – you get reading across the curriculum as well. Bonus brownie points for you there.

Bibliography

Applegate, K. (2012). The One and Only Ivan (1st ed.). New York: Harper Collins.