Newbery Project #1: 2013’s The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan is about Ivan (duh), a gorilla, and his motley crew of animal friends who are all stuck in a remarkably sad, ethically questionable mall-based mini-circus/sideshow. Told in the first person by Ivan, over the course of this relatively short story we learn about how he and all his friends happened to arrive in these pretty miserable circumstances, and about their day-to-day lives. We also get to know the few humans who interact with the animals: the owner of the side show, Mack, and the custodian and his young daughter, George and Julia. Julia is an artist who also sneaks art supplies to Ivan so he can join her in her drawing and painting, and who sympathizes with the animals and forms a bond with each of them. An afterword lets the reader know that the whole story is actually based on true events and Ivan is a real gorilla. Namely, this gorilla who lived at the Atlanta Zoo until just over a year ago.

After the break, my review, and how I think The One and Only Ivan fits into this whole Newbery thing…

It’s a sweet story. Ivan’s narration is sparse and poetic. (We’re reminded frequently that animals are much more economical with their words than humans.) I made the mistake of reading a good chunk of this while running on a treadmill at the local park fitness center and almost started crying in front of all of the new year’s resolution attempters. It’s a heart-string puller for sure, especially if you’re like me and find animal suffering in books to be especially gut-wrenching. (Still can’t believe there isn’t a for books.)

As I was reading the book I often found myself thinking “Really? This situation seems especially dire and awful. I know this isn’t realistic fiction but SERIOUSLY? This seems pretty far-fetched. Who’s ever heard of keeping an animal in a MALL?” But then I learned that many of the events were basically true, and that the whole ordeal ended only 20 years ago, and I had to eat my words.

But even with the pretty writing and the plot seemingly tailor-made to drill down to my vegetarian, animal-loving heart, I didn’t love this! It was so relentlessly sad until the end. And while the “based on the true story!”-ness makes the whole plot make more sense, it still feels dated and strange. I know animal cruelty still exists, but a children’s book hardly seems the way to raise awareness about it, especially when the situation in this book was unique (I think). I’m just not sure what the point of this book was except to make children really sad for most of the time they were reading it.

Which brings us to my Newbery hypothesis: does the ALA really just love giving the Newbery to the saddest/most serious book they can find? Clearly this doesn’t happen EVERY year, but I think it happens more often than not. I also think that the ALA may like to give the award to books that librarians like, and not necessarily books that kids would like. Will I be proved wrong by the end of this project? Hopefully! We’re not starting out well, though.

When the awards were announced last January, my friend who writes for a magazine’s pop culture blog asked me, “Is The One and Only Ivan sad?” before she finished her post about it. The implied question I heard was, “Is this another sad Newbery book?”

At the time I hadn’t read it but replied, “Dunno, but it sure looks like it.” I was right.

Would kids like this? There are a certain group of kids that will love this. I once proposed to a guided reading group I was working with that maybe we could read Bridge to Terabithia, but that, fair warning!, it’s really, really sad. They all immediately said “YES! THAT ONE.” Plenty of kids love a really sad story, it makes them feel grown up. However, the glacial pace at which this book moves, along with it’s sparse-poetry style, will scare off kids who don’t like their books quiet and serious.

Are there “funny bits”? Nope! Not a one! There are lots of opposite-of-funny bits, though!

Should it have won? I’m surprised that R.J. Palacio’s Wonder didn’t even get an Honor’s nod, much less the award. It had its flaws, but I still enjoyed it a lot more than this. Not to mention, most of Wonder made me just ache to teach that book to a room full of 4th graders. I can’t imagine teaching The One and Only Ivan. That said, it’s beautifully written, with a nice message about kindness and caring for animals, and about the artistic spirit. The world certainly isn’t a worse place for having this book in it. I get why it won.

(image from, illustration from the book by Patricia Castelao)

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