Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The One and Only Ivan

 It’s that time of year: a pile of books has formed under my bedside table, like a paper-based stalagmite. It’s inching up toward me, challenging me to read all the recent Newbery and Printz award contenders.

Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan recently made it to the top of the pile, and I’m glad I read the book. This novel reminds me of a recent silver medalist: Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. Not that the stories are at all alike. It’s just that both have short, accessible texts, great topics (this one’s about animals in captivity, while Inside Out was about the immigrant experience), good writing, and space on the cover for a possible award medal.

Perhaps most importantly, these books demand to be shared. Whether or not The One and Only Ivan takes home awards, it’s an extremely “share-able” book, one I might recommend to readers from fourth grade all the way through middle school.

The story is simple: a gorilla named Ivan lives with a small menagerie of animals housed in a rundown shopping mall. He dreams of being an artist, he enjoys the company of his fellow animals, and he tries to forget his captive status by calling his cage a “domain.”

What makes the book so easy to share with young readers?

·      Short chapters give readers of all abilities a quick sense of accomplishment, while also packing in a lot of meaning and emotion.

·      The straightforward narration—the story is told strictly from Ivan’s first person point of view—keeps the structure simple yet compelling.

·      The theme of human and animal interaction is beautifully explored through Ivan’s interactions with Julia, a human girl, and Mack, Ivan’s owner.

·      The differences between life in the wild and life in captivity are shown from the animal’s point of view, and as readers we’re made to feel the smallness of Ivan’s cage-view of the world.

·      Ivan should ignite some pretty powerful classroom discussions. For example, what does it mean and how do you feel when Ivan’s friend Stella says, “A good zoo is how humans make amends”?

·      The theme of arts ability to liberate the spirit is shown in a very literal way in this story (Ivan’s art helps him and the other mall animals find a better life), but being literal doesn’t make the “lesson” simple. Ivan’s a simple and complex tale.

There are definite flaws to Ivan. At times the gorilla point of view is much too adult in tone, and the story initially reads a bit like a (very good) writing class exercise. This made it hard for me to get into the book at the beginning.

That said, Ivan is still a powerful, share-able book that should find a wide audience.

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