When Zachary Beaver Came to Town by Kimberly Willis Holt (J)

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town    

Kimberly Willis Holt

Nothing ever happens in Antler, Texas. Nothing much at all. Until this afternoon, when an old blue Thunderbird pulls a trailer decorated with Christmas lights into the Dairy Maid parking lot. The red words painted on the trailer cause quite a buzz around town, and before an hour is up, half of Antler is standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world.

It’s the summer of ‘71 in Antler, Texas and the biggest news in town was Cal’s brother, Wayne, serving in Vietnam and Toby’s mom, Opalina, going to Nashville to compete in the National Amateurs’ Country Music Competition at the Grand Ole Opry. Those two things alone were enough to keep the town’s tongues wagging for a while, but then along came that white trailer carrying the world’s fattest boy. Just two dollars and you could gawk all you like. It doesn’t seem like anything could top this, but Toby Wilson and Cal McKnight are two teenagers in a small town so you can bet that adventure—and trouble—aren’t too far behind.

With her National Book Award winning novel, Kimberly Willis Holt takes us to small town America in the early 70s. A time when the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War, the local cafe was where you went to get updated on all the latest news, and there was nothing so bad that eating a snow cone with your best friend couldn’t make right. Holt’s downhome, folksy writing immediately sets a tone of comfort, familiarity, and inclusion for her readers and instantly makes you a part of this tight-knit town that boasts the Wag-a-Bag, Bowl-a-Rama, AND Wylie Womack’s snow cone cart. What more could a town need?

Holt explores so many important and relevant themes that often (and unfortunately) go unexplored in today’s stories for young readers. It’s the subtle niceties that bear no monetary value that seldom makes it to the written page: allowing a person to maintain their dignity, extending a stranger common courtesy and respect, and accepting loss and defeat with grace and valor. Kindness, decency, and friendship serve as the foundation for When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, but Holt also shines a light on the selfish side of human nature and how easy it is to put our own wants and desires ahead of what is right—regardless of the consequences. She also explores a number of relationships in her book with each one offering readers a valuable lesson in forgiveness, humility, and empathy.

Two teenage boys learned so much when Zachary Beaver came to town, but perhaps the most important were that friends don’t snitch on one another, you always stick up for those who can’t defend themselves, and you never, never turn down the chance to dance with the girl of your dreams…especially when a song by the Carpenters is playing.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M. Martin (YA)

A Corner of the Universe

Ann M. Martin (YA Fiction)

Hattie Owen lives in the third largest house in the small town of Millerton. Her grandparents live in the second largest. But unlike her Nana and Papa’s house, Hattie’s house isn’t filled with fancy furniture. It’s filled with boarders. Hattie doesn’t mind living with people who aren’t her family. What she does mind is living with secrets—one big secret especially. Hattie is about to find out that her mother has a younger brother, which means that she has another uncle. An uncle who, until recently, had been attending a “school” for the mentally disabled, but will now be moving back to Millerton to live with Nana and Papa.  Even though Hattie’s Uncle Adam is family, she realizes that she knows more about her parents’ boarders than her own flesh and blood, which begs the question, “If a person is kept a secret, is he real?” Hattie Owen is about to find out.

A 2003 Newbery Honor book, A Corner of the Universe covers so many complex and complicated topics, it’s really difficult to choose where to begin. Based on events in her own life, Ann M. Martin explores mental illness and the effects it has on both the individual and those around them. Twenty-year-old Adam Mercer, displaying symptoms of autism and schizophrenia, is seen as quirky, unpredictable, temperamental, and largely high-spirited by his twelve-year-old niece. However, as is the case with diseases of the brain, it only takes a minor deviation from a structured routine or an ill-delivered repudiation or rejection to set off a downward spiral of uncontrollable outbursts and dangerous reactions. Through Hattie’s lens, Adam is a person being denied fun and freedom by her controlling and rigid grandmother. Through Nana’s eyes, Adam is a child who requires constant supervision and well-defined boundaries. In reality, Adam is a little of both.

A Corner of the Universe is recommended for grades 5-8, and I certainly would not recommend this book to any reader younger than this. With topics of mental illness and suicide, as well as a few sexually implicit situations and some mild profanity, this is clearly meant for young adult readers—although the themes of acceptance, tolerance, inclusion, and kindness transcend all age groups. Martin gives us a perfect look into an imperfect world and shows us the devastation of living with guilt and regret, as well as the unintended consequences that follow seemingly good yet naïve intentions.

Hattie often said that she and her Uncle Adam had a lot in common. That they both felt like outsiders—always on the outside looking in. Hattie once told her uncle that she felt like she was a visiting alien to which Adam replied, “And aliens don’t belong anywhere except in their own little corners of the universe.” Sadly, it’s so easy to misjudge people who don’t fit into a preconceived category or check a certain box. What’s even sadder is the ease with which we tend to discount these same people—forgetting that they too have thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams. Although both Hattie and Adam often felt unwanted and out of place, both were able to find an unexpected friend in one another and for a brief moment, they were able to turn their corner of the universe into a very accepting, forgiving, and happy place.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (J Fantasy)

Princess Academy

Shannon Hale (J Fantasy)

It was the last trading of the season and Miri was ready. At fourteen, she was very small for her age and not allowed to do the one thing she wished to do—work in the quarry. But one way or another, she would make her father proud and would get that stingy lowlander to give up more than he wanted. That would bring a smile to her father’s face and being useful would bring a smile to hers. But along with the traders came a painted blue carriage that carried word from the king—a prophecy that the future princess of Danland resided in Miri’s own Mount Eskel. All girls aged twelve to seventeen would go to an academy for one year’s training before the prince would select his bride and young Miri was to be among them. Could little Miri, too useless to even work in the quarry alongside her fellow mountain folk, EVER be considered worthy of a prince? She’ll have a year to find out.

Hale delivers a masterful and brilliant story of class and privilege and explores the problems associated with stereotypes and prejudices. Set against the backdrop of a chiseled mountainscape and a secret language stored deep inside the mountain’s linder stone, Princess Academy is the story of a young girl’s desire for acceptance while remaining true to herself and all that she holds dear. Recipient of the 2006 Newbery Honor Book award, Princess Academy shows us courage and the consequences that come with standing up to unfairness and protecting the most vulnerable among us.

There are so many valuable lessons in this book, especially for young girls who feel unnecessarily driven to be wittier or prettier or smarter than their peers. Miri understood the toxicity behind this kind of competition when she said, “I don’t like the feeling in competition with everybody to be seen and liked by Prince Steffan.” And it was Miri’s friend, Esa, who so wisely suggested, “We should make a pact. We’ll be happy for whomever he chooses, no jealousy or meanness.” Although written in 2005, these lessons still hold true today. There are so many empowering quotes about lifting each other up without tearing one another down or how a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. Hale, through a “useless” girl who had very modest dreams, shows us the power for standing up for what is right and never turning your back on a friend.

I love Miri Larendaughter and have added her to my growing list of favorite fictional heroines. Besides her tenacity and courage and goodness, I believe it is her ability to lighten even the darkest places or the direst of circumstances that stands out the most to me. Prince Steffan said it best during his conversation with Miri when he said, “I would pay a deal of gold to have your talent of making other people smile.” In this age of competing for likes and followers, attention and approval, I hope we all remember how much value a simple act of kindness—especially a smile—is worth.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.betterworldbooks.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Yoko Ogawa

I was used to absurd demands from my employers—that I wear a different color ribbon in my hair every day; that the water for tea be precisely 165 degrees; that I recite a little prayer every evening when Venus rose in the night sky—so the old woman’s request struck me as relatively straightforward. “Could I meet your brother-in-law?” I asked. “That won’t be necessary.” She refused so flatly that I thought I had offended her. “If you met him today, he wouldn’t remember you tomorrow.”

By the time that Akebono Housekeeping Agency had sent her to work for the Professor, his card had already amassed nine blue stars—one for each time a housekeeper had to be replaced. If she failed, she would be the tenth. The job seemed easy enough: care for a man in his early 60s, work Monday to Friday from 11 am to 7 pm, prepare lunch and dinner, perform basic housekeeping, and do the shopping. The only caveat? The man—a former math professor—had a memory that only lasted eighty minutes. So began a unique friendship that would start over every hour and twenty minutes. A relationship as mysterious, complex, and intricate as the numbers that filled the Professor’s life.

Ogawa gives us a hauntingly beautiful story about kindness, loyalty, and friendship. Despite giving her characters no names (with the exception of the Housekeeper’s son who is nicknamed Root), these individuals still manage to leap off the page and burrow their way deep into your heart. Both the Professor and the Housekeeper are sympathetic and deep characters who justly deserve our compassion. The Professor remains largely unaffected by the new memories and friendships he’s made; however, when he becomes aware (either vocally or visually) of his loss, you can feel the torment, anguish, and misery literally slicing through his soul. Likewise, the Housekeeper bears an equally heavy emotional burden as she lives each day with the realization that after eighty minutes has passed, the Professor will neither remember nor miss her. This book will tug on every single heart string you possess, yet Ogawa still manages to give us a story filled with joy and hope.

The only minor downside is that The Housekeeper and the Professor does go deep into the mathematical weeds on several occasions with lengthy explanations of various theorems, laws, and formulas. Fans of Pierre de Fermat, Leonard Euler, and Pythagoras will appreciate their numerous references (with Euler’s Formula being specifically highlighted). While the majority of us will tend to glaze over these facts (while reliving some uncomfortable high school math memories), math is the singular means with which the Professor has to communicate and connect with those around him and so these enthusiastic explanations are easily forgiven as they provide valuable insight into a complicated and troubled individual.

Galileo Galilei wrote, “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” No matter how much had been taken away from him, the Professor realized that math connects us all. It is indeed a universal language without barriers or limits. Understanding this now makes me wish that I had spent just a little bit more time appreciating my high school math teachers and everything they patiently tried to teach me.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram (YA)

Darius the Great is Not Okay

Adib Khorram (Young Adult Fiction)

Darius Kellner has some very big shoes to fill. After all, he was named after Darius the Great, one of the greatest rulers of the Achaemenid dynasty. Darius the Great was strong, smart, and brave, conquered lands and expanded the Persian Empire.  Darius Kellner is none of these things and has never really accomplished anything…although he can brew a mean pot of tea. For one thing, he’s only half Persian or a “Fractional Persian” as he refers to himself.  Also, he never stands up for himself. The school bullies (the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy) keep him in his place, which makes life at Chapel Hill High School (Go Chargers!) a living nightmare. On top of all of that, the medication he takes for his depression causes weight gain, which only makes the target on his back that much easier to spot. But life is about to get a little more complicated as the family boards a plane to Iran to visit his sickly maternal grandfather. How can a shy, non-confrontational Fractional Persian with a penchant for The Hobbit and Star Trek: The Next Generation be able to live up to his namesake in his mother’s homeland? Darius doesn’t need to be great. What Darius needs is a miracle.

Author Adib Khorram, who himself suffers from depression, delivers a warm and realistic take on teenage life and the struggle with balancing family expectations with personal aspirations. What is refreshing about Darius the Great is Not Okay is that Khorram fills his book with characters who are not caricatures. It could have been easy to paint Darius as the hapless victim. The “typical” bullied teenager who is sullen and solitary. Instead, Khorram takes great care to give our main character heart and who experiences deep feelings of jealousy, resentment, humiliation, and gratitude without the need for a fall guy or martyr. When Darius is around his little sister, Laleh (an adorable and precocious second grader), we see his kindness, compassion, and various bits of exasperation peek through. As his friendship with Sohrab begins to evolve, we witness a more confident and joyful Darius emerging. Also, Khorram avoids depicting Darius’s intelligent, and charismatic father, Stephen, as the elitist, cold-hearted, and controlling patriarch. Through various situations, we understand that Stephen’s repeated criticisms of Darius are not cruel, but rather a father’s desire for his child to be accepted, appreciated, and happy. All of Khorram’s characters are perfectly imperfect and are so well developed, that we find ourselves laughing, crying, and cursing right alongside them.

Khorram’s story also gave me the opportunity to learn more about Iran and her people, culture, and history. Iran is truly a separate character in this book and although Khorram was born in Kansas City, Missouri, his father is Iranian and the love he has for his father’s birthplace is evident in every single page. As Darius experiences Iran for the first time, we too get to feel the dust on our skin, smell the savory teas brewing in their pots, taste the confectioners sugar on top of the qottab, and marvel at the magnificence of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence and Persepolis. Darius the Great is Not Okay is not only an expertly told story about family, friendship and acceptance, but it is also a lavish feast for the senses and truly a trip worth taking.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo (J Fiction)

The Tiger Rising

Kate DiCamillo (Juvenile Fiction)

He took a breath. He opened his mouth and let the words fall out. “I know where there’s a tiger.” Sistine stood in the drizzly rain and stared at him, her eyes black and fierce. She didn’t say “A real one?” She didn’t say “Are you crazy?” She didn’t say “You’re a big old liar.” She said one word: “Where?” And Rob knew then that he had picked the right person to tell.

Rob Horton was the best no-crier in the world. That was due in large part to his way of not-thinking about things: his mother’s death, the bullies at school, or the continual rash on his legs. He kept those feelings, along with his no-wish things, locked up tight in a suitcase. As his father always reminded him, crying, worrying or wishing won’t change a thing. So Rob really wasn’t sure what to think when he found a caged tiger behind the old Beauchamp gas station building one day. He also wasn’t sure what to think about that new girl, Sistine, who showed up to school one day in her pink lacy dress since nobody wears pink lacy dresses to school. Suddenly Rob found himself trying to not-think about a whole lot of thinkable things and he wasn’t sure just how much more that old suitcase of his could hold.

It’s tricky being an adult reading a book targeted for younger readers. I feel it’s important to view these stories from their perspective and through their unique lens. With that in mind, I still found myself disappointed with this book. Kate DiCamillo is by far one of my favorite authors and a brilliant storyteller so I was surprised with feeling shortchanged with The Tiger Rising. Her characters seem shallow and could have been developed more fully.  Rob’s father, in particular, could have benefited the most from some kind of backstory. Without understanding his past, he came off as a hot-headed, unfeeling, and violent father who garners little to no sympathy from readers. Also, this story felt forced and rushed—as if DiCamillo is hurrying us across a self-imposed finish line rather than allowing us the opportunity to fully experience the thrill or the energy of the race.  The Tiger Rising feels more like a story pitch or outline rather than a fully fleshed out tale of loss and friendship.  Although the lessons of realizing the importance of grieving and the power of forgiveness are important, they get buried under the weight of too many loose ends that are left to simply dangle in the wind.

One of the most interesting and grounded characters in the book is Willie May, the housekeeper of the hotel that both Rob and his father live and work. Sistine refers to her as a “prophetess” as Willie May is always providing little nuggets of truth and wisdom.  When Willie May saw Rob and Sistine together, she said, “Ain’t that just like God throwing the two of you together?” It is a powerful thing when two seemingly opposite or contrary things find their way to one another and connect. I wish I could have connected with this story, but I feel the best parts of it are still locked away somewhere and is just awaiting the right key to set it free.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Good Night, Mr. Tom (YA Historical Fiction)

Good Night, Mr. Tom

Michelle Magorian (YA Historical Fiction)

Thomas Oakley was well into his sixties when the Billeting Officer knocked on his front door.  To the people in his village of Little Weirwold, Thomas was an isolated, bad tempered, and frosty man, but to the officer, he was the perfect fit for this particular evacuee.  Eight-year-old William Beech had come with specific instructions from his mother: either place him with a religious person or near a church.  Thomas Oakley fit the bill perfectly.  So Thomas, a man withdrawn by choice and grief, and William, a boy withdrawn by abuse and neglect, found themselves together and slowly healing in each other’s company.  But when Thomas loses touch with William after being summoned back to live with his mother, Thomas embarks on a journey to find the young boy who had become like a son to him.

I always hold out hope that books for young adults that have important themes may somehow find a way into the hands of younger readers.  I thought this might be possible with Good Night, Mr. Tom.  Although it carried warnings of child abuse, war, and death, the first part of the book was rather benign and contained mild implications of these subjects: the blacked-out windows, bruises and sores on William’s body, William’s fear of reprisal and constant nightmares, and reports on the wireless or in newspapers.  However, once William is reunited with his mother, the tone of the book shifts dramatically and it becomes terrifyingly obvious why this book is recommended for more mature readers.  The imagery is horrific and quite contrary to the idyllic life William experienced in Weirwold, which makes it all the more shocking and appalling when William has to relive this horror for a second time.     

Magorian, quite deservedly, received the 1982 IRA Children’s Book Award for Good Night, Mr. Tom.  She fearlessly delves into the psychological trauma that follows prolonged mental and physical abuse, as well as the impact it has not only on the abused themselves, but also on those around them offering support, healing, friendship, and love.  She also explores the emotional toll of the war on a small village as young men are called to service while their loved ones patiently await word of their wellbeing.  Thankfully, Magorian gives her readers sufficient mental breaks by balancing tense, emotionally exhaustive scenes with lighthearted moments shared between friends and family.  It’s this back-and-forth that makes for a fast-paced story that doesn’t pull any punches in delivering an impassioned, tragic, and dramatic story.

Good Night, Mr. Tom immerses readers with a story about bonds and their importance and fragility.  For the first time in his life, William has a best friend, Zach, who values his company, admires his differences, and treasures his friendship.  Also, William finally has a parental figure in whom he can trust and depend.  Magorian’s overall lesson in her compelling and powerful story is the healing power that comes with unconditional love.  William’s mother taught him that love came with strings (“Mum had said that if he made himself invisible, people would like him and he wanted that very much.”), but his friends in Weirwold and Mr. Tom showed him the beauty and power of a love given completely and unselfishly.  The Persian lyric poet Hafiz once wrote, “Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”  Zach’s kindness and Mr. Tom’s devotion remind us that even in the midst of war and surrounded by the darkest of black shades, love’s light shines bright and can heal even the most damaged and tortured soul.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

Savvy by Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

Savvy 

Ingrid Law (J Fantasy)

There are certain things that the Beaumont family knows about secrets: they need them, they have them, and they keep them. In just a few days, when Mibs turns 13, she’ll join her mother’s side of the family and will have a secret of her very own. That’s when she’ll get her own savvy and her world—as she currently knows it—will never be the same. But before her big day, her father is involved in a terrible accident and left seriously injured. With her newly acquired supernatural power and a pink bible bus filled with a handful of misfits, Mibs encounters bikers, brawls, and plenty of banana cream pie in a race to bring her whole family together and to save her broken father.

A 2009 Newbery Honor Book, Savvy is an imaginative and heart-pounding adventure story filled with many relatable themes that are standard fare for young readers: bullying, standing out, fitting in, first love, and making friends. The first in a series of three books (Scumble and Switch are both complete stories, but make small references to the original book), Savvy is an easy-to-read, thrilling ride that introduces us to a quirky set of characters including the preacher’s daughter, a belittled bible salesman, and a waitress with a heart of gold. Each of these people allow Mibs to slowly understands that perhaps the Beaumonts aren’t the only ones that possess supernatural powers. The ability to encourage, to help, to listen, and to accept are just as powerful as any savvy and Mibs quickly realizes just how special her new friends are in their own way.

Ingrid Law packs so many wonderful lessons in this book and that alone is worth the read. Along the way, Mibs learns that sometimes a bad thing can make a good thing happen or that happy endings come in all shapes and sizes or that things don’t always happen the way you want them to. Perhaps the most valuable lesson Mibs receives was from her mother who told her, “In most ways, we Beaumonts are just like other people. We get born, and sometime later we die. And in between, we’re happy and sad, we feel love and we feel fear, we eat and we sleep and we hurt like everyone else.” Through the eyes of an awkward teenaged girl, Law reminds us of how much good can be accomplished and gained when we focus on our similarities rather than our differences.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.thriftbooks.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (YA)

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven (Young Adult Fiction)

“Is today a good day to die?”  Theodore Finch asks himself this question in the morning, during third period, and at supper.  He also counts the days that he is Awake.  Awake is good and safe and where he needs to be.  Violet Markey counts the days until graduation.  When she can begin a new life away from Bartlett, Indiana and the pain she feels every day since her sister died.  Both Finch and Violet are counting, but what they didn’t count on was meeting on the ledge at the top of the high school bell tower.  They didn’t count on wandering around their state discovering out-of-the-way landmarks and attractions.  Most of all, they didn’t count on falling in love.

All the Bright Places gives readers a gritty and honest look into bipolar disorder.  Told in alternating narratives by Finch and Violet, we experience bullying, loss, domestic abuse, suicide, and mental illness.  With so many disturbing and difficult topics, it is a testament to Niven that readers are given a story filled with laughter, love, and hope.  Through two fractured and flawed main characters, we see teenagers struggling to understand their place in the world and determined—despite all odds—to make their mark within it.

Young Adult Me liked the star-crossed relationship between Finch and Violet.  He was the Yin to her Yang and the two complemented one another well.  Finch’s fearlessness in approaching Violet about her loss enabled her to break free from her psychological prison and regain her independence.  Violet, in turn, acted as a compass giving Finch direction and much-needed stability.  However, Adult Me really had a problem with Finch’s family and how they chose to deal with his manic depression.  It seemed too easy and convenient to chalk up his behavior as quirky and weird and, “Oh, that’s just Finch.”  When he disappears for days, they dismiss it as, “He does that sometimes.”  This cavalier attitude seems a bit apathetic for a family already put through the wringer with divorce…and a nasty one at that.  During weekly visits with the Finch patriarch, it’s obvious that Finch’s condition is hereditary and one would think that his mother would be hesitant to turn a blind eye a second time around.  But in the end, Young Adult Me just told Adult Me to stop overthinking things and enjoy the story…so I did.

Niven gives us a raw and poignant story about two teens drowning in their own pools of mental anguish and personal guilt.  Whether by luck or fate, they find each other and extend the healing lifelines of forgiveness, acceptance, and love to each other.  Through them, we see that it is possible for life to go on no matter how impossible or improbable it may seem at the time.  Throughout their story, Finch and Violet express their need to feel relevant, their desire to matter, and their wish to be remembered.  By seeking out the hidden treasures within their own state (a backyard roller coaster, a shoe tree, or a book mobile park), the two begin to uncover their own self-worth that eventually allows a violet to bloom and a finch to fly.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket

 

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

**Want more?  Visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedustyjacket