Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.
Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.
Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.
Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope. [Book Jacket Synopsis]
A Life Changing Story
Ivan is a mighty Silverback gorilla who’s grown up in captivity, at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall. Not exactly the best conditions. Ivan accepts his fate by blocking out memories of the jungle he came from and creating art with the crayons and paper given to him by the keeper’s young daughter.
Stella, an elderly performing elephant in the cage next to Ivan, is different. She remembers her past and longs for a better life. Her festering rage fuels her hope for a better life. The days at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall are all the same, until the owner brings in a baby elephant named Ruby to help boost the failing business. Stella cares for scared and lonely Ruby like a true elephant mother, until an untreated injury threatens her life. As Stella’s dying, she asks Ivan to save Ruby from a fate of performing four shows a day, 365 days a year. Ivan says he will, to make his friend happy in her final moments, but he doesn’t know how he’ll keep that promise.
I admit it. I was totally crying my eyes out at this point, and wondering if I could even finish this book. Let me just say “I’m so glad I kept reading!”
Stella’s death forces Ivan to remember his painful past and realize his purpose in life … protecting his family. Through the pain of his epiphany, Ivan sees the way to freeing Ruby. He works tirelessly on new paintings to this end, and his plan is carried to fruition with the help of the keeper’s young daughter. Ruby isn’t the only one Ivan saves, however. His selflessness takes him and the rest of the animals at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall to natural habitats where they can be with those of their own kind. By the end of this story I was crying again, except this time for a totally different reason.
It would have been easy for Katherine Applegate to paint all people as villains in this story, but she doesn’t. She alludes to the injustices done to Ivan and Ruby when they were taken from their families in the wild, but she also mentions the people who helped them. Even the owner of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall is cast in a sympathetic light, showing us that he cared about the animals in his charge and was doing the best he could.
Children will love with Ivan and his friends, connecting with their genuineness. Adults will be moved by the honesty, heart, and hope that shines through Katherine Applegate’s elegant prose.
I think the Newbery Honor author of The Wednesday Wars, Gary D. Schmidt, describes the essence of this story best:
In cheering for Ivan and his friends, we cheer for our own humanity, and our own possibilities. Read this.