I recently picked up The One and Only Ivan, written by Katherine Applegate. She has written a variety of books for a variety of audiences – and I loved this one. This is the story about Ivan, a silverback gorilla, living in a Washington state suburban mall. I don’t know why I was so surprised in loving this book. Ivan was such a sad, lonely, gorilla – but was the bright spot in the lives of his friends. The other animals in the mall suffered the same fate he did. I think that the most shocking part of the book was that Ivan was a real gorilla, who lived in a cage inside a mall in Tacoma, Washington for 27 years. It’s incredibly sad, and when he came from African (born in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the 1960s, attitudes and beliefs about animals were quite different.
“I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part. I have a gorilla’s shy gaze, a gorilla’s sly smile. I wear a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback. When the sun warms my back, I cast a gorilla’s majestic shadow. In my size humans see a test of themselves. They hear fighting words on the wind, when all I’m thinking is how the late-day sun reminds me of a ripe nectarine.”
We know so much more about animals today, their behaviors, their habitats, their needs. People began to protest Ivan’s living conditions. Eventually he made his way to Zoo Atlanta, and there he spent the rest of his life. For this book, Katherine Applegate created a life for Ivan, with two very special friends – Stella, an elephant, and Bob, a small stray dog. Although Ivan did live with other animals at that mall in Tacoma, these characters were fictional.
For Ivan, Applegate was awarded the Newbury Medal. There is another book Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, that she wrote for younger readers. It was hard for my daughter to understand Ivan’s situation, and this book was equally sad. I think it’s an important story, but it’s hard for young readers to understand. It’s actually hard for me to understand why someone kept poor Ivan in a cage for so long! Both are great books though, and I enjoyed both of them. Hopefully, even though these were written for young audiences, readers can learn from the important lesson of treating animals with respect. And readers of all ages can enjoy this story of Ivan’s imprisonment, and eventual freedom. There are a few other books of hers that I’m now putting on my to be read list.