Free Fridays: Ivan, the Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla

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This book, written by Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate and illustrated by G. Brian Karas, tells the true story of a gorilla who was captured and taken to America.

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The book starts in a forest in Africa, where Ivan the gorilla is born. Ivan grows, plays, and learns, but unfortunately, not about the danger that humans pose. Ivan is taken halfway around the world, where he is raised like a human child.

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When Ivan becomes too large, he is put into a cage in a mall. He spends his days watching people watch him. After several years, people begin to protest. After twenty-seven years in a cage, Ivan is moved to a zoo. After some time to acclimate to his new home, he finally gets to go outside and start a new life.

The story is simple but meaningful. The illustrations bring color and emotion to the text: Ivan’s world is initially green, but in his cage, the world is gray. Humans are often portrayed in these darker shades of gray as well, reminding us that the existence of humans in Ivan’s world is part of his sadness.

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This book is a powerful story that deals with many tough issues. It is not often that humans are portrayed as the enemy in the story, yet it is important that we recognize our mistakes and share them so as to not repeat them. This book also tackles death. Another gorilla travels with Ivan to America, but dies soon after they arrive. The book addresses loneliness, the struggle of captivity for animals, and encourages compassion. Humans are the enemy in the story initially, but it is also the actions of human protesters that help move Ivan from his cage to a better home.

The end of this book has two pages with more information about Ivan, including websites to visit for more details. The picture featured on this page shows the two gorillas dressed in human clothes, a striking image of the tragedy these animals faced.

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This book is an important book to read and covers many powerful themes for a picture book. The text and the pictures help the story become one that is powerful, but not heavy. This kind of meaningful text is something that should be incorporated into children’s literature because it has the ability to start the important conversations that remind children that they have the ability to make a difference in this world.

-Kate Tarne

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