Our final mother-daughter book club read of 2015 was the 2013 Newbery Medal-winning The One And Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. It’s the story of Ivan, a captive gorilla who has been living in a glass cage in a roadside mall for 27 years. Memories about his childhood in the wild, his deceased sister, and his strange years living with his keeper in a house are all painful for Ivan, so he mostly focuses on the present and the other animals in the roadside mall – Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. Ivan also paints (his paintings are available in the mall gift shop) and sometimes interacts with the humans who press their faces against the glass walls of his cage. A rather depressing existence.
The mall falls upon hard times, and in order to get more visitors, its owner buys a young elephant who has been captured from the wild. Ruby is wary and defensive at first, but thanks to Stella’s coddling and calming, she become more interactive. She reluctantly participates in the tricks her new owner trains her to do, but she questions him, and the whole setup, from the start. When Stella dies from a foot infection, she extracts a deathbed promise from Ivan that he will take care of Ruby and get her out of captivity, so that she doesn’t spend her life the way Stella did.
How will complacent (depressed?) Ivan find a way to get Ruby – and himself – out of the mall? And what will they find when they get out?
The One And Only Ivan is a moving – often very sad – exploration of the relationship between humans and animals, friendship, keeping hope alive, and making a change. It sparked a good discussion among our group of 11 year-olds about whether zoos are positive places for animals and how animals think and communicate. We all felt deeply for these creatures and were very sad about the way they were treated, though we also sympathized not only with the animals’ handler but also the man who ran the mall, who cared about them in his own way. It’s a very easy book to read, with short chapters and sentences that convey what Ivan is thinking, but the themes addressed are not simple or easy.
The girls in the book club liked The One And Only Ivan quite a bit, and for many of them it ranked among their two favorite books of the year.