Ivan has lived at the Exit 8 Big Top Circus Mall since he was a juvenile gorilla, just off I-95 and under the billboard lauding “The One and Only Ivan.” His best friends include Stella, the aging elephant, Bob the stray dog, and Julia, the daughter of the janitor. But the Big Top isn’t faring well. “You’re old news,” Bob tells Ivan. Mack, owner of the Big Top, seems to agree and purchases a new, frightened, sad-eyed baby elephant.
This is a very emotional story of captive wild animals. Ms. Applegate gives them wonderful personalities, lively dialogue, and boatloads of sympathy. It’s just a little too sentimental for my tastes. And I don’t agree with the social statement that people are horrible and wild animals should never live in cages. I agree that we shouldn’t mistreat animals. And I don’t think it’s necessarily wise for regular Joes to keep large, dangerous animals, especially after last year’s tragedy in Ohio. But these aren’t humans. They aren’t “slaves” as PETA has said in a ridiculous lawsuit citing the 13th Amendment on behalf of captive orcas. They aren’t the wistful, long-suffering, loving family of characters in this book. They’re animals. Bored, perhaps. Aggressive, probably. In need of laws to regulate who, and for what purpose, can keep them, definitely. But to put them on the same level as humans (gorillas and humans are called “fellow apes”) is absurd.
Now that I’ve struck down the reality and whole premise of the book, let me tell you what I did like. The characters. The animals are extremely loveable. It’s told from Ivan’s point of view, and that gives it a gentle tone. I love the fact that Ivan is an artist, which gives him common ground and a special ability to relate with Julia, the human girl. Bob the dog is funny. The baby elephant is sweet. The chapters are short, short, which is nice for young or struggling readers. And the ending is feel good. It’s original. I am an incurable animal lover, so it’s fun to pretend animals could really be like this. Yet The One and Only Ivan uses emotion and sentimentality to very subtly place animals on par with humans, and that can be dangerous. Such evolutionary thought lessens the value of human life.