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"The One and Only Ivan," by Katherine Applegate


Sometimes—but not always—I have a hard time with animals talking in books. It bugs me that the author thinks he knows what animals are thinking and what they would say if they spoke our language. And then I have long conversations with my cats about it.

So, I’m not 100 percent sure why I so much like The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. The story is told entirely by Ivan, a silverback lowland gorilla, and it’s based on a true story. The true part: As a baby gorilla, Ivan and his sister were captured in the Congo and sent to the United States. His twin sister died en route. Ivan at first lived like a pet with a man and his wife, then became an attraction at a mall until he was rescued and brought to Zoo Atlanta (he was even featured in National Geographic). In the book, Ivan has suppressed his memories of being in the jungle and even of being a pet. He’s made himself adapt to his circumstances and his glass-walled and concrete “domain.” Then Stella the elephant, one of his best friends at the mall, dies (from years of neglect) and he must find a way to rescue himself and Ruby, a baby elephant, from their prison.

Early on in the book, Ivan tells us that it’s his job as a silverback male to protect his troop. He doesn’t waste words or pound on his chest for no reason at all--not like humans do. But Ivan realizes, once he has to get Ruby out of the mall and to a zoo, that he’s not the mighty gorilla he thinks he is. Still, he comes up with a plan, one that I won’t give away, except to say that Ivan (in the book and in real life) is an artist. And his plan works.

I think kids (7 and up) will love this book. Ivan is a hero who slowly finds courage. He is a kind soul who risks everything for a promise he made. And he is a gorilla who finds a home, at last, with his own kind.

I’ve read two other books in recent months that featured talking animals. I recommend you pass on Waiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachlan. I can’t get behind dogs spouting words of wisdom and people who believe being able to hear what they say. It’s cloying. That’s not even me being cynical. OK, maybe it is me being cynical, but the talking dogs in this book don’t work for me. Nor does the story. And I believe in magic.

The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett is very different. Two young Romany boys and their infant sister stumble upon an abandoned zoo after running from Nazis who have just killed their extended family. Each of the animals at the zoo tells a story about his or her life, and Hartnett gives each animal a distinct voice. Sadly, the animals and the young Romany children are hungry and have no one to care for them. Their fate is unknown. It is a tale about war and its victims. The book very much reminded me of Life of Pi by Yann Martel (haven’t read that yet? you should) in both tone and imagery.

Read: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Consider: The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett
Pass: Waiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachlan

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