The One and Only Ivan, winner of the 2013 Newbery medal, is a very special book. It’s the story of a silverback gorilla, forsaken as a shopping mall attraction. Ivan manages, thanks to an array of supporters, to survive and flourish and discover a new and better habitat. It’s a story told from Ivan’s perspective in an unforgettable, clear, moving prose style, through sentences and sentiments so honed that they read like haiku.
Ivan has been brought to the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade in Washington State to entertain tourists. Ivan’s friends are Stella, an aging elephant; Bob, a runaway dog who sleeps in his cage; and Ruby, a new young elephant.
Ivan forms a special relationship with Julia, the daughter of the mall custodian, a relationship not unlike Wilbur and Fern in Charlotte’s Web. It is Julia who encourages Ivan to draw with crayons and finger paints. Through drawing, he is able to find a way of expressing himself and his inner feelings so that others them can see, too.
I scan my domain. What is yellow?
I draw a banana. The paper only tears, but only a little.
I lean back …
What else is yellow? I wonder, scanning my domain.
I draw another banana. And then I draw eight more.
Inspired by Stella’s wisdom, Ivan eventually resolves to do something to save young Ruby from the mall circus. With the help of his friends, he manages to save himself, too.
I am, I suppose, a peaceful sort. Mostly I watch the world go by and think about naps and bananas and yogurt raisins.
But inside me, hidden, is another Ivan.
The One and Only Ivan is written in the first person so the reader experiences everything from Ivan’s perspective – his life, his past, his current domain, his friends, his hopes, his dreams. He is a keen observer and an affecting narrator: melancholy, witty, and wise. He tells us bluntly: “Humans waste words.” “Homework,” he discovers, “involves a sharp pencil and thick books and long sighs.” And when he finally meets other gorillas: “Is there anything sweeter than the touch of another as she pulls a dead bug from your fur?”
Most of Ivan’s chapters consist of carefully crafted single sentence paragraphs. They make for patient, careful reading and listening. They merit appreciative attention. Students and parents may fly through Ivan’s carefully polished prose. Teachers will want to stop and call attention. You can even create simple, inspiring writing exercises out of Applegate’s technique.
The One and Only Ivan has become a broadly popular book on our list. Ivan’s engaging voice puts readers right inside the head of a vibrant new character. His array of friends ensures readers have fun and care about their plight. And Ivan’s voice is a boon to readers – and writers – of all ages