Read Aloud Thursday: The One and Only Ivan

David’s current bedtime book is the 2013 Newbery winner, The One and Only Ivan. I picked it to read with him because he loves animals and any kind of animal story and because unlike other recent Newbery winners it looked like a book that had appealed to an award committee of librarians and that would also appeal to kids. Overall, we’ve really enjoyed the book although I have some ambivalence about it as a choice for David (a 1st grader).

Ivan is a silverback gorilla who has lived as long as he can remember at an odd zoo/circus/shopping mall “at Exit 8 off of I-95”. His friends are Stella, an aging ex-circus elephant with a wounded leg, and Bob, a stray dog who likes to sleep on Ivan’s stomach. Ivan eats yogurt raisins and watches TV. He likes watching Julia, the young daughter of the custodian, when she comes to visit. He considers himself an artist and his crayon drawings sell for $25 (with frame) in the mall gift shop. He thinks his life is ok.  He has never seen another gorilla and he can’t remember the past at all but he doesn’t really think much about either of those things or about life outside his “domain” until a baby elephant named Ruby arrives at the mall. Ruby’s arrival catapults Ivan into the role of protector for the first time in his life. He makes a promise to try and help Ruby have a better life and as he cares for her he begins to remember more of his own past.

The book is told from Ivan’s point of view, which is intriguing. Ivan isn’t anthropomorphized in the same way that the animals in a book like The Wind in the Willows or Redwall are. He is still very much a gorilla.  The point of view didn’t totally work for me. I kept wondering why Ivan could talk to Bob and Ruby but not to Julia. (Maybe I’m comparing to Charlotte’s Web which we also recently read. I like that Fern can understand the animals. In fact, E. B. White implies that anyone can if they take the time to listen. Adults just don’t listen.) However, my boys are more accepting and they liked Ivan. They thought he was really funny and smart and rooted for him to succeed in his plan to save Ruby.

Ivan is at times a funny book and in the end, it’s a book with a satisfying and even happy ending. It’s also a quite sad book, which is where my ambivalence comes from having chosen it for David. He’s quite sensitive, especially about animals. (He’s a newly proclaimed vegetarian. Well, a vegetarian who eats bacon. But that’s a whole other post.) He gets very upset about cruelty or death. We hadn’t read very much of the book before I realized it was going to be sadder than I realized. I skimmed ahead and was a bit concerned about him so I warned him that it would be sad but that it would end ok. And then I cut out one particularly gruesome scene from Ivan’s past.

I would recommend the book, even for animal lovers. However, I would definitely recommend pre-reading or reading aloud to younger or more sensitive kids. It’s a fairly easy book to skip parts as the chapters are very very short (often less than one page or consisting of just a few sentences). It may be an especially good book for kids who love animals. Beyond the sadness and the basic storyline there are interesting questions about whether or not places like zoos can serve a purpose and be a good place for animals. I admit to being a little conflicted about our own visits to zoos. On one hand, I dislike seeing animals in cages. On the other, I know that often the zoos can do very good work for animals that are endangered. Also, I think our kids have learned from visits to the zoo to love and be curious about animals and to be more interested in animal welfare and protection than if they had never seen an elephant or sea lion or gorilla. I liked that Katherine Applegate doesn’t make the zoo issue black or white, instead she focuses on how the animals are treated. That’s something I’ve tried to be more aware of in our own zoo-going as well.


And in honor of Ruby, a picture from a recent trip to the opening of the new Elephant Community Center at our local zoo.

Stop by Hope is the Word for more Read Aloud Thursday (and adorable baby photos).

4 thoughts on “Read Aloud Thursday: The One and Only Ivan

  1. This one wasn’t my favorite, though I can definitely see an animal-loving child liking it a lot. Do your kids pick their own individual read-alouds?

    • Mostly I pick for David (age 6). Sometimes I will get a couple of choices and let him choose the one he wants to do. Occasionally there will be a series he really enjoys and wants to do more of. (Swordbird was one where he wanted to read the sequels more than I did.) I would say for John (age 9) it’s kind of 50/50. I know what he likes so I’m usually pretty good at picking books he will like. But sometimes he makes suggestions about what he’d like to do next. We’re currently working on The Lord of the Rings and have been for awhile 🙂 at his request.

  2. Pingback: Read-Aloud Thursday: Year in Review | Supratentorial

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