I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.
It's not as easy as it looks.
This is chapter one in a narrative of the lives of humans but mostly the animals at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Each of the following chapters have lower case letters written in one word or simple phrase headings. Whether a half page or several pages each chapter is so full of heart that sometimes you believe your heart can not bear it.
Stella, an ancient elephant and Bob, a dog with no home, are Ivan's dearest friends; he does have Not-Tag a stuffed toy gorilla. George is the do-everything maintenance man and Julia is his ten-year-old daughter. Mack owns the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.
Ivan's words describe the cages in which he and his friends live, their day-to-day existence of performing tricks for the people who come to see what can be seen and of what each remembers, of what each dreams. We are introduced to the personalities of each of the humans through Ivan's simple assessments, Stella's wisdom and Bob's true but sarcastic comments. But...
A new animal is coming to the Big Top Mall.
How do we know this? Because we listen, we watch, and most of all, we sniff the air.
Humans always smell odd when change is in the air.
Like rotten meat, with a hint of papaya.
Ruby, the new arrival, is a baby elephant. Her curiosity, her questions and her reluctant, fearful ability to perform create changes, a new way of seeing, a stirring of memories for most at the Big Top Mall, but not for all. Stella, lover of moonlight, awakens Ivan on such a night, evoking from him a promise. This promise goes to the core of his being as a silverback although the how of it seems impossible.
Tragedy hanging heavy in the air, mounting tension and that promise prompt Ivan to make use of his artistic talents, his gift of drawing with whatever materials are placed before him (that he doesn't decide to eat.) Forming a plan pieced together with hope he creates a puzzle of opportunity that only certain eyes will see. Principle, protesters, and possibilities merge to mend readers faith in humanity; to plant the seed of compassion for those without words to speak.
Katherine Applegate's brilliant use of language permeates every single page. Reading like poetry we are compelled to follow the course of a narrative so haunting that it pierces your very soul. Lips will form laughter, eyes will fill with tears, minds will be shocked and voices will cheer as words clearly, carefully bring readers into the very center of the tale.
Once, however, I was able to enjoy a book left in my domain by one of my keepers.
It tasted like termites.
"They think I'm too old to cause trouble," Stella says.
"Old age," she says, "is a powerful disguise."
Patricia Castelao, based in Spain, provides artwork that adds warmth, realism to Ivan's story. Although most of the work at her site is watercolor painting I can not be sure that is how she rendered the illustrations in this title.
Katherine Applegate was inspired to write The Only and Only Ivan based upon the life of the real Ivan who spent nearly 30 years without benefit of being with another gorilla. Now housed in Zoo Atlanta, the real Ivan lives a life in the companionship of other gorillas. Readers can find out more about the imaginary and real Ivan at the site linked above. At the HarperCollins site a look inside the book is provided as well as a discussion guide and this book trailer.