“Come to the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, Home of the One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback!”
Told from the perspective of a silverback gorilla named Ivan, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is a fictional tale based on the life of a real gorilla. Ivan has lived in his domain, a glass enclosure with a painted jungle scene, at the Big Top Mall for 9,855 days (27 years). His best friends are Stella, an elephant, at the Big Top Mall and Bob, a stray dog, who sneaks into his enclosure at night to sleep on his belly. He does not remember much about his life in the jungle and is content with his life until he meets a new addition to the mall, Ruby, a baby elephant. As Ivan watches Ruby struggle to adjust to life at the mall, he questions if this is really a good life and if not, what he can do about it.
Most students, once they reach upper elementary, have been to the circus or the zoo. Many students have never thought about or questioned why we, as a society, keep wild animals in captivity. The One and Only Ivan is a quick read perfect for upper elementary students. This novel challenges readers to consider the implications for animals living behind glass and bars for our enjoyment and amusement.
All fifth grade students at Wendell Phillips Elementary, where I am currently a K-6 literacy coach, read this novel as their final novel of the school year. They completed the novel right before the incident at Cincinnati Zoo took place where Harambe, an endangered western lowland silverback gorilla was shot and killed to protect a three year old boy who entered the animal’s enclosure. Our students had the opportunity to watch news footage covering this story, discuss this tragedy, and make connections to the text they just read. This novel would be great to pair with articles about the pros and cons of animals living in captivity.
Applegate takes readers on a journey and gives them a unique perspective. In the novel Stella, the elephant, tells Ivan, “It’s how humans make amends.” The reader has to determine if the amends help animals or if humans should have taken different actions from the beginning. I enjoyed this novel and this text is one I would recommend to students.