This is both the last book of my reading of the 2012 Cybils mg sf/f finalists, and the book that won this year’s Newbery. The way it always works in the library is that the books that win the Newbery and Caldecott medals develop an instant wait list as soon as the awards are announced. Sometimes I put my name on the list right away; this time I just waited for the demand to die down.
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.
Katherine Applegate is also one of the co-authors of the Animorphs series. This book, she says, is loosely based on the true story of a gorilla who was kept in a mall for many years before finally being moved to the Atlanta Zoo. Ivan, the narrator of our story, lives in the highway-side Big Top Mall, where he makes pithy observations on humans and their ways. A large billboard by the highway advertises “The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.” He writes, in brief, poetic chapters, of his life and friendships at the Big Top Mall and before. Initially, he is completely absorbed in the present. He talks of Stella the elephant and her stories, Bob the homeless dog who prefers to be free, and George the janitor, who brings his daughter Julia, who in turn provides Ivan with art materials, which he likes both for drawing with and for eating. The Big Top Mall is no longer doing well. Mack, the owner, can’t afford proper food or medical care for the animals, but decides that what he needs is a new baby elephant. When Ruby comes, heartbroken at being taken from her family, Stella and Ivan are determined to protect her. It is only for Ruby that Ivan remembers his past and the painful events that brought him to his cage in the mall. Finally, Ivan realizes that he has to help Ruby escape the slow death of the mall and find a better life.
It’s a deeply moving story with strong characters told in lyrical language – but I was still a little dubious when reading it that it would actually appeal to kids. Even the biggest, most dramatic events seem to happen slowly and are described very calmly by Ivan – actually probably a good thing for children reading of the deaths of gentle animals. And, though the thinking animals make it fantasy, the animals still behaved like animals, so it’s more like Charlotte’s Web-style fantasy than, say, Redwall. However, my son’s best friend read it with his class, and said that they liked it. G’s favorite character was Bob, the scrappy little dog. In short, if you’re looking for heavy action or magic, this isn’t the book for you. It’s still beautiful and well worth reading.