Feb 12, 2013

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

All of the amazing children's and young adult literature awards were recently announced and like every children/teen librarian and teacher, I'm in the rush to read all of them to be able to answer the questions patrons have.  I've found that most people will read books if they're popular, become movies, or win awards.

Today I finished 2013 Newbery Medal winner, The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, a verse novel in the voice of Ivan, a gorilla who is the main attraction of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. 

Ivan is used to living his life behind his glass walls: watching the people who watch him and watching Westerns on his TV.  It's not enough; he yearns for his natural life, but at the same time can't remember it clearly.  He loves the other animals at the Arcade, but misses his family.  What can he do?

It would be easy to make this novel strictly an anti-animal cruelty PSA.  But Applegate doesn't just attack the type of animal show depicted in the novel.  While she does emphasize the severe problems, through Ivan's voice we also see the positives.  Mack is clearly the villain of the story, but he is a three dimensional villain.  As School Library Journal far more eloquently states in their review"There are a lot of Macks in this world and I think it’s worth letting a kid know that they can feel sorry for someone but still hold them accountable for their actions."  Applegate makes the conflict that much more powerful and trusts the intended children audience to process this conflict from both angles.

I'll be honest, when I first began the novel my immediate thought was "This is a book you give to kids when you want to weaken their spirits and destroy their love for the circus and zoos...Like a Water for Elephants for kids."  It's not.  Ivan actually describes zoos as a place where good humans attempt to "make amends."  But even if Ivan didn't describe zoos this way, children shouldn't be shielded from the pains of life.  These types of books are important in the children's literature canon.  

All in all, the voice of this novel is powerful, it's well-written, emotional and drives its message forward throughout.  Even without the Newbery Medal, it's a must-read.

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