The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (J)

The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan

Katherine Applegate (Juvenile Fiction)

“I just thought of a story,” I say.  “Is it a made-up story or a true one?” Ruby asks.  “True,” I say.  “I hope.”  Ruby leans against the bars.  Her eyes hold the pale moon in them, the way a still pond holds stars.  “Once upon a time,” I say, “there was a baby elephant.  She was smart and brave, and she needed to go to a place called a zoo.”  “What’s a zoo?” Ruby asks.  “A zoo, Ruby, is a place where humans make amends.  A good zoo is a place where humans care for animals and keep them safe.”  “Did the baby elephant get to the zoo?” Ruby asks softly.  I don’t answer right away.  “Yes,” I say at last.  “How did she get there?” Ruby asks.  “She had a friend,” I say.  “A friend who made a promise.”

Ivan is known by many names that humans have given him: The Freeway Gorilla, The Ape at Exit 8, Mighty Silverback, and The One and Only Ivan.  But really, Ivan isn’t any of those.  He’s just Ivan who spends his days (9,876 and counting) at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  Ivan is great at counting, but the thing he loves to do more than anything else is draw.  His drawings sell for $20 in the gift shop ($25 framed) and so he spends his days drawing, counting, and observing until a baby elephant named Ruby joins the Big Top Mall.  Ruby is shy and scared and Ivan soon realizes that he must make good on a promise he made to a friend in order to keep Ruby safe.  A promise that he’s not sure how he’ll keep, but he knows he must find a way.  Whatever that might be.

Winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal, The One and Only Ivan was inspired by a real gorilla named Ivan who spent almost three decades in a circus-themed mall in Washington state before his eventual relocation to Zoo Atlanta.  In this heartwarming and touching story, Applegate gives us a hero who is kind, strong, and loyal.  Despite being four-hundred pounds of pure power, Ivan is a main character full of self-doubt, humility, and opinions…lots and lots of opinions:  poodles are parasites, humans speak too much, and there is absolutely no excuse for chimps.

Throughout her story, Applegate gives us glimpses of kindness, cruelty, desperation, remorse, selflessness, hope, and love.  It is a tale of loyalty, bravery, and ingenuity and shows us how far we are willing to go in order to keep a promise to a friend.  Narrated by Ivan and written in simple, concise sentences that manage to convey a wide range of thoughts and feelings, we get to experience the lonely and isolated world of caged animals and their longing to see the sky, touch the grass, feel the wind, and taste a bit of freedom.  After reading this book, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never look at a circus (with animals) in the same way again.  At least I hope so.

The One and Only Ivan has so many valuable lessons to share with readers young and old alike: the honor of keeping your word, the importance of finding your inner strength, and the impact that a small act of kindness possesses.  Above all, this book shows us that you don’t have to have much in common with someone in order to extend a bit of comfort and hope.  Ivan shows us this through his friendship with Stella, an elderly elephant.  “We don’t have much in common, but we have enough.  We are huge and alone, and we both love yogurt raisins.”  Author, speaker, and businessman Stephen Covey once said, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.”  How wonderful life could be if we were able to take a lesson from an opinionated silverback and an aged pachyderm.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Paris Is Always a Good Idea by Nicolas Barreau

Paris Is Always a Good Idea

Paris Is Always a Good Idea

Nicolas Barreau (Adult Fiction)

“A few days later, on a springlike day in April, the story of the blue tiger entered Rosalie Laurent’s life and changed it forever.  Ultimately there is a story in every life that becomes the fulcrum about which it revolves—even if very few people recognize it at first.”

Rosalie Laurent is the owner of Luna Luna, a charming postcard shop in Saint-Germain.  She sells stationery, paperweights, beautiful pens, and wishing cards—beautiful and unique cards lovingly painted by Rosalie herself.  She is happy (her mother would rather she have a more “respectable” job) and content and although several of her own wishes have gone unanswered, she can’t imagine her life to be any more fulfilled until the day when celebrated children’s author Max Marchais walks—rather trips—into her shop and brings with him a book in need of an illustrator.  Just when Rosalie thinks that all of her wishes are beginning to come true, a handsome American literature professor enters her life with accusations of plagiarism.  So much for wishes.

Nicolas Barreau has written a book as light and sweet as a freshly baked croissant, as colorful and expressive as a Monet painting, and as beautiful and vibrant as the city of Paris itself.  It’s a delightful and charming story brimming with hope, loss, regret, and love…beaucoup d’amour! It’s endearing without being sappy and the relationship between Rosalie and Max shows us that love and compassion can bridge any age gap and provide two souls with the belief that each day is full of promise and possibility.

One of the sweetest aspects of this novel is the blue notebook that Rosalie writes in every night just before going to bed.  In it, she writes just two things: the worst moment of her day and the best.  If I had a blue notebook right now, I would write that the worst moment of the day would be reading the very last sentence of Nicolas Barreau’s lovely book and having to say goodbye to Rosalie, Max, Luna Luna, and the splendor that is Paris.  The best moment of the day would be knowing that there is another book out there with a story and characters who are waiting to touch my heart and brighten my day just like this book has.  After all, reading, just like Paris, is always a good idea.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (J)

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven

Elizabeth Coatsworth (Juvenile Fiction)

Once upon a time, far away in Japan, a poor young artist sat alone in his little house, waiting for his dinner.  But on this particular day, dinner was not coming.  Instead, inside the housekeeper’s little bamboo basket was a small white cat with yellow and black spots on her sides.  But the artist could barely provide for the two of them let alone a third!  Fortunately, a tri-colored cat is a very lucky thing to have and so she was kept and named Good Fortune.  True to her name, good fortune followed her and soon the head priest from the temple arrived and commissioned the artist to paint the death of the lord Buddha.  It seemed that the luck of everyone…and everything…in the household was about to change.

Written in 1930 and awarded the Newberry Medal in 1931, The Cat Who Went to Heaven is a short book (just 63 pages) brimming with lessons of mercy, grace, and forgiveness.  Elizabeth Coatsworth’s book has been reprinted twenty-four times, but I suggest selecting the version containing Lynd Ward’s exquisite illustrations.  His drawings bring an added depth and richness to Coatsworth’s beautiful words and will allow readers to fully immerse themselves within this exotic and mystical world.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven is recommended for ages 10 and up, but younger audiences may enjoy it as a bedtime story.  The short chapters followed by a summarizing poem make it an ideal nighttime read.  Most of the book centers around the artist painting various animals which Buddha embodied throughout his life.  Each animal has its own story, and each story has its own moral including honesty, kindness, fidelity, and bravery.  The story is charming and flows like silk, but the ending is abrupt (it even took me a bit by surprise) and may not sit well with more sensitive readers.  Not to spoil the story, but the title IS an indicator as to how this story ends so forewarned is forearmed.

“Forgiveness” is the centerpiece of this book and it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and human rights activist, who once said, “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.”  Coatsworth wrote her book a year before Archbishop Tutu was born, but she too must have realized the sentiment behind these words because through forgiveness, she has given Good Fortune a very happy beginning, which in turn gives her readers a truly happy ending.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.tvtropes.org

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