I’ve been slowly working my way through books, really any book but this one I was able to devour in a day. Just as “Flora and Ulysess” is the 2014 Newbery Medal winner, “The One and Only Ivan” is 2013’s winner. I knew nothing about this except that it was on the poster of Newbery Medal winners next to my desk at school library and that a fifth grade teacher had checked it out to read to her class. As is my custom, I did check out the audiobook version and I have to say that this has been an amazing year for me and my listening to audiobooks. Adam Grupper reads the story with such ferocity. He alters his voice into such distinct characters that I can picture Ivan, the captive silverback gorilla, pacing in his cage as the only gorilla in a circus-themed mall. I can picture Bob, the runaway dog who befriends Ivan, slipping through a whole in Ivan’s wall and offering sage but sassy advice. I can picture Stella, the one and only elephant, and her limp, injured foot, dreaming of freedom.
These animals have lived in the mall for decades with only themselves for company. Sure, crowds come to watch them perform forced tricks but the crowds dwindle over time to nothing. Mack, the human owner, develops a scheme to get the people to come. He purchases a baby elephant from a bankrupt circus – introducing little Ruby to Stella. Stella takes Ruby in as her own but Stella cannot go on forever. She has been sick and injured for far too long to continue. In the darkness one night, Stella whispers through the walls to Ivan and he promises her an unpromisable thing: that he will save Ruby.
This work unfolds into a story about survival and the treatment of animals in captivity. Applegate features the circus as a terrible place for the lonely animals and pits that against the lush, familial atmosphere of a zoo. There can be no real recommendation for which of these places is what is for the best for the animals, but in this particular telling, the zoo is far safer. This is yet another work that should spark active discussion:
1. Is it ethical to keep wild animals in a circus?
2. Is the zoo better?
3. If the zoo is featured as better, replicating a more primitive and native habitat, why are the tools for motivation for Ivan, et al. obviously human such as marshmallows and yogurt-covered raisins?
4. Can an animal held in captivity safely transition to a family life in a zoo?
5. Can they transition back to the wild?
(Applegate does take the time to feature an epilogue of sorts; she explains that there is a great deal of truth to this story. It was inspired by a circus-themed mall in Washington state that proudly featured a gorilla named Ivan.)