The One and Only Ivan
by Katherine Applegate, Patricia Castelao
This book was literally thrust into my hand at the library by the children's librarian who said that if she were to write a book, she would want it to be just like this. It was a quick read and one I'm definitely glad I undertook (yay for librarians with great book recommendation ability!).
This the story of Ivan, a gorilla who lives in a cage at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Yeah. Not really the ideal setting for a gorilla whose instincts are to socialize, explore, and be creative. Ivan loves drawing and forms a special bond with a little girl who also draws; she's the daughter of the janitor. Thanks to Castelao's illustrations, we get to see some of this art in the book as well as getting a better sense of our main characters. Because Ivan's other close friends include an elephant (also on display) and a dog (who doesn't have a real home and sneaks in and out to sleep on Ivan's chest at night). It's a unique existence, but Ivan can't really remember much of his past, so it's all right.
Then a new elephant is purchased and she is sad but inquisitive. She asks for stories, and Ivan pulls up some of his long-repressed memories of his family and his twin sister--all dead and gone now thanks to people. He remembers his childhood as a pet and then being moved into the mall, and he starts to realize that this is not where he or any of them belongs. Instead of wanting to go free, however, he does his best to try to get the baby elephant a better home. He uses his artistic skills and cleverness and keeps his promises and protects his band (his family).
There are so many touching moments in this story. There are lines so sad they made me cry, delivered casually and off-handedly because that's just the way the world works, as Ivan sees it. My heart ached for all the animals. Their home is not a terrible one, but due to lack of funds/commercialism, there is mistreatment (even if there is regret on the part of the humans, that's no reason to hurt animals). And the truth is, this really isn't the best place for any of the animals. They try to be happy and love their friends, but it's still not good or healthy or right. It's hard to see that when you're an animal living in the moment, though. I love that these guys are able to look to the past and the future and figure out some way to improve their situation. And then, with humans' help, they achieve it.
It's a beautiful, touching, sweet, heartwarming book about the relationship between wild but captive animals and humans. There's a lot unsaid about the responsibility we humans have for all living creatures (from wild animals to domesticated ones). And it's a book that says so much about the relationships in our lives--what defines and motivates us. A wonderful read.