At first glance, the text and font style of The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate gives the first impression that this book is easy reading.  And as far as readability, flow and the amount of print on a page, it is “easy” reading.  But a few pages into The One and Only Ivan, I quickly realized that this story full of live emotions and allows the reader to make connections because Ivan is given a human voice and human emotions.  The reader is able to climb into the world of Ivan and his friends and actually experience and visualize what it feels like to live in the cold concrete domain off Exit 8 in the Big Top Mall.

Maybe it is my motherly, teacher side of me, but I was able to put myself into their shoes.  I was moved and at times teared up.  One of the many touching scenes is the turning point for Ivan when he promises Stella on her death bed to take care of Ruby and find a better life for her.  To get Ruby out of what up until this point Ivan called his domain (but Stella called it what it was, a cage).  I think he calls it his domain and not a cage because he is in denial that this life is drab, dreary and he is miserable, which is also why he has forgotten his past life.

One of the main differences of this story in relation to other children’s stories is the personification of the animals, the content of the story and the point of view that it is written in.  It is written from the point of view of Ivan, a great silverback who tells his story, a memoir of sorts about his time spent in the Big Top Mall and how he was able to get himself and his friends out.  The story begins by Ivan introducing himself as Ivan, a freeway gorilla.  Ivan is portrayed as having a very human side, even though at times he claims most humans are slimy chimps, which is an offensive, slang term in gorilla language.  The other characters also are shown having the human characteristics of compassion, loneliness and determination.  There is Stella who is the elephant who never forgets and is the matriarch of the family; Ruby is the breath of fresh air that renews everyone’s hope in life and gives Stella the fulfillment of being a mother; and Bob the stray who chooses to be homeless and displays a tough exterior but is really desperate for the family bond he finds at the Big Top Mall.

After Stella passes away, Ivan makes a promise to her, to figure out a way to get Ruby out of her domain, to live free and be with her own kind.  He decides to accomplish this feat through the communication of his artwork that he creates. Before Stella’s death, he painted whatever he saw lying in his cage.  After her death, his purpose for his painting changes, it has meaning. Much like his purpose of life has changed because he must be the troop leader and lives to free Ruby.  He now paints for Ruby to give her a life he did not have. Eventually Ivan is able to explain himself through his artwork to Julia, the fellow artist who is the janitor’s daughter, and make her realize that he has been painting a picture of them in the zoo and they want a new home.  Julia talks her dad into applying the “principle” that he is trying to teach his daughter, and glues the picture over the billboard that advertises the circus.  This move gets him fired, but it begins the movement of protests that eventually gets all the animals to new homes, including Bob, who was homeless by choice.

I think Ruby is Ivan’s redemption in many ways.  Ruby gives him hope. “… She makes a happy, lilting sound, an elephant laugh.  It’s like the song of a bird I recall from long ago, a tiny yellow bird with a voice like dancing water.  Strange.  I had forgotten all about that bird, how she’d wake me every morning at dawn, when I was still curled safely in my mother’s nest.”

Ivan decides Ruby is not going to be another “one and only.”  Ruby forces Ivan to confront his painful past, like when Ruby stirs up memories in Ivan about his parents’ dying and realize there is more to life than his domain.  With Ruby, Ivan remembers what it is like to live again by remembering the details of his life and paint those pictures.  And he realizes that sometimes things, like the zoo, are people’s way of making amends.  At the end, Ivan has found his new home and his new blank canvas to paint on is a symbol of his new life.  He finds the clean white wall to paint on with the mud he finds in his cage, like he did in the wild when he was young.  In some ways, Ivan went full circle, even though he did not return to the wild, he was able to return to other gorillas and live outside his domain.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is that it was based on real characters and events.  Ivan still lives in Zoo Atlanta with Kinyani, there was a gorilla named Jamba, and a Big Top Mall that went bankrupt who housed these Ivan and his friends.  Applegate was able to simulate the way she thinks Ivan and the others would be feeling and turn it into a touching, believable story.

This book deserves an introduction if it is going to be used in the classroom.  I would start the unit by showing the following clip  which is a link that shows a very short video that does just enough to stir up interest as to who and  what Ivan is and what has he done.  It also has other links such as explaining who the real Ivan is and gives his history.  Another link is one to harpercollins  which has study questions to guide discussions.  These questions could also be used to set up literature circles to really give students a chance to share and discuss the emotions that are in this book.  If I were to teach this book in class, I try to prepare myself for some serious, deep thought questions that my students may have if they truly grasp the understanding of this story because of the following issues that it addresses.

This story deals with some very adult situations such as imprisonment, animal cruelty (how Ivan, Ruby and Stella where captured, as well as how Mack used the “claw” to make Ruby perform on his command), death (of Stella from neglect, of Ruby’s family who were killed violently, as well as the murder of Ivan’s parents, the cutting off of their hands and turning them into ashtrays) and prejudice (against chimps and the human race in general).  It is these tragedies that help bond these characters together and help them realize that your family can be the people who love you and care about you and can look very different from the traditional family unit.  I think many of my students could relate that to this point.

Additional websites for The One and Only Ivan:

This is a YouTube video created by a librarian for Ivan:

very touching video.

Another suggestion, The One and Only Ivan is available on Kindle, Nook, etc.  down load to let students read and interact with.  I have just loaded it onto my iPad.  The text is even less intimidating than the book.  There are very few sentences on the screen, depending on how I turn it.  I am able to change the font and background to suit my taste.  I may try to let some of my higher reading students experiment with it on my iPad to get some feed back from them on how they like reading on the iPad.  Or I may possibly read the story aloud from my iPad and demonstrate the tools (such as hyperlinks, font settings, etc) as we read.  My groups are small, so I could possibly work with them at one time.  If I used the the YouTube video as an introduction, I would start off by having them make predictions about the song choice for the video, if they were familiar with the hymn.  As we read the book, I would use the websites I mentioned last week to guide discussion with the group as well as invite the students own comments to further discussion.


5 responses »

  1. I really like how you said you would use literature circles with this book in order to allow the students to really discuss the emotions and controversial issues of this book. I think that the students would gain a lot by having deep conversations since many of the issues in the book are heavier topics. I also liked how you said that you would have to prepare yourself for the serious questions that are likely to come after reading this book.

    I like how you said that you would introduce the book before using it in the classroom. I think that a general unit about gorillas, the treatment of animals, etc. would be a great way to spark interest. However, I really liked not knowing that the book was based on a true story until after I read it because I think it had more of an emotional impact that way. The whole time you are reading you think that this is a fictional story just based on the experience of any imprisoned animal, but to learn that Ivan really exists at the end just brings the whole story into perspective.

  2. Beautifully written post Lori…very thoughtful. I am curious about your students…have you shared/will you share this book with any of them? Read it aloud? 🙂

  3. Lori-
    You are right; the book does deserve an introduction if used in the classroom. The link to the main book’s website is a perfect link as it gives you information on the real Ivan and his history as well as a biography on the author. I used the discussion questions on the HarperCollins link during my read aloud to the class. It was very helpful to use as a guide with our class book talks throughout the book. I also used them to help guide their blog discussions. My students had a hard time picturing this zoo place in a mall, so I had to stop at that point and pull up on the big screen a picture of the B & I Shopping Mall for them to see and to be able to picture where Ivan used to be. This was very helpful for my students because they were completely lost at this point. Through reading the book, we did speak a lot about animal cruelty and what should or shouldn’t have been done with Ivan and his friends. My students are for the most part animal lovers, so most of them were very concerned about Ivan and his friends- I even had a few people get very upset when reading the book. This is something we as teachers have to be prepared for. I have seen several book trailers for the book and the one by the librarian so far to me is the most touching video yet. I think she did an excellent job portraying who Ivan was, his mission, and his hopes without giving away too much of the book. Excellent link choices, and maybe if you start your boys’ book club back up again that you had last semester, you could read this book with them as a read aloud!

    -Amanda Solesbee

    • Amanda,

      I had a difficult time myself picturing a “Big Top” mall. All I could think about was Valley Hills!! I do think the the librarian’s video was very good preview of what the book is about. If I started back my book club, this would certainly be one I would consider, especially now that I have it downloaded on my iPad.

  4. Lori,

    I hadn’t thought about The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate being even less intimidating on an e-reader. That makes sense though because unfortunately some students would never think about opening this book because it looks so long and intimidating. On an e-reader, seeing just a few sentences at a time would make many students immediately feel that this book is attainable. I liked your idea of introducing this book using the youtube video. Videos can be a great way to grab a student’s attention and increase interest before diving into a book.

    -Stacy Durham

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