Top Ten Ape Books

I love apes. Not monkeys, apes. They are our closest relatives and are so fascinating and intelligent. My interest in apes started several years ago when I started teaching and I taught a story called “The Oldest Living Atlanta Gorilla” about Willie B., a gorilla who was introduced to grass for the first time at the Atlanta Zoo.  Then 2 years later I read Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby and visited the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, FL which rescues orangutans and chimpanzees from entertainment, pets and research.  Over the last 6 years, I’ve shared my love (of the stories and animal) with hundreds of students.

Since that moment, a mild obsession has started. I’ve become a bit of an advocate of apes and I had to learn as much as I could about them. Being a Nerdy Book Club Member, what do I do? Turn to books. I had to read every book about apes I could find. Today I wanted to share with you all my favorite ape books (and two I really want to read).

Picture Books

Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell

Me…Jane is about a young Jane Goodall who discovers her love of animals and shares her adventures with her stuffed chimpanzee Jubilee.

This book is simple at first glance, but it is so powerful. It shows the power of a dream and the power of a brilliant woman. This book is truly an advocate for imagination & curiosity and reaching for your dream. Chimpanzees are amazing creatures and it is because of the work of Jane Goodall that we know to what extent of amazing they are.

Little Beauty by Anthony Browne

The zoo keepers thought the gorilla had everything he needed and he seemed happy; however, the gorilla, who knows sign language, tells them otherwise.  He is lonely (as any gorilla who is alone would be) and wants a friend. The zoo keepers introduce him to a kitten and the rest is heartwarming.

I love the idea of the odd friendship and that such a large creature can be so gentle and loving to a cat. This book shows once again the humaneness of gorillas.

Anthony Browne has other ape books as well:

Gorilla, the Willy books, and King Kong

A Chimpanzee Tale by Karen Young

One of the most important things to teach students is to  keep chimps in the wild and this fun, poetic picture book will help reinforce that lesson.  Told by Hoot, a chimpanzee, A Chimpanzee Tale shows the reader where chimps live in the wild, what happens if they are removed from the wild and how the reader can help any captured chimp.

Early Reader

Marty McGuire and Marty McGuire Digs Worms! by Kate Messner, illustrated by Brian Floca

Marty McGuire would rather play in the mud than play dress up. She’d rather catch a frog than be a princess.  Now, these books may seem like they don’t fit in, but if you have read them, you know why they are on the list. Marty is such a special girl and her and her best friend Annie love to pretend they are Jane Goodall and Dian Fosey and are advocates for the apes.

“Annie and I know all about chimpanzees and mountain gorillas because of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, these awesome scientists who went to Africa to try to save them. Sometimes, we pretend to be Jane and Dian in the woods behind Annie’s house. We pretend the crayfish are chimpanzees and mountain gorillas, even though they’re not as cute.” (p. 12)

Watch Me Grow: Ape by Lisa Magloff (Discovery Kids)

I am always looking for something to start the conversation about the differences between apes and monkeys. I believe this nonfiction Discovery Kids book would be a great addition to a primary classroom or house to open up that conversation AND it included great information that I didn’t even know.

Middle Grade

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Illustrated by Patricia Castelao

My introduction to Ivan started 6 years ago when I began teaching and I was introduced to a story about Willie B., the oldest living Atlanta gorilla, and I became fascinated with apes in general. I found a National Geographic video called “The Urban Gorilla” that had Willie B. in it, but it also had a gorilla named Ivan who had been introduced to the zoo 7 years after the Atlanta zoo made their Ford African Rain Forest which now exhibits the largest gorilla collection. This introduction to Willie B. and then Ivan began the journey into my love of apes.

So, as you can see, I am a sucker for this book. And I even fell more in love by how beautifully it was written and put together. This book is almost a novel in vignettes. The way that Katherine Applegate wrote for Ivan is straight to the point but deep at the same time which I really feel fits a gorilla’s personality. I can picture Ivan sitting alone for hours feeling just the way that Katherine Applegate wrote for him. But just like in Willie B.’s story that I read for the first time 6 years ago, it is the end when he gets to Zoo Atlanta that got me. What redemption for Ivan after a life of restraint. The beauty of the prose mixed with the simple, realistic illustrations made for a brilliant book about friendship, loss, and making a difference.

Chimpanzees I Love: Saving Their World and Ours by Jane Goodall

I love Jane Goodall. She is an amazing woman (did you know that she hadn’t even gone to college when she started her studies of chimps?!?!).  She is an inspiration to us all and she studies chimps which are some of the most fascinating animals out there. This book summarizes her journey to and at Gombe and introduces us to the chimps there. A perfect introduction to Jane and chimps.

Jane also has written other books, from picture books to adult nonfiction books, about her time in Gombe and her research of chimps:

My Life with Chimpanzees, Reason for Hope, In the Shadow of Man, Chimpanzee Family, With Love and so many more.


Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby

This book is so important to me it is even hard to write this review. I have never written one because the book has become so personal to me that I didn’t know how to share my feelings. When I read Hurt Go Happy for the first time, I knew that it was the book that I wanted to share with every student I ever had.  Hurt Go Happy shows the importance of empathy for animals, for children and for people with disabilities.

Hurt Go Happy has become the number one community builder in my classroom.  After our state test and our Earth day activity with The Lorax we begin our read aloud of  Hurt Go Happy. Throughout the book my class participates in conversations about deafness, sign language, chimpanzees, abuse, research facilities, animal abuse, wild animals as pets, survival, parents, school, death, fear, and their future. The conversations are so deep and wonderful.  But this is just the beginning.  Following the reading of the novel, my students are lucky enough to be able to take part in an interview with the author of  Hurt Go Happy, Ginny Rorby. The students generate the questions, vote on which ones to ask and even ask her the questions. Ginny even allows us to send her extra questions and answers them for my students.

The part that really makes students connect to the novel is the field trip that we go on.  At the end of the book, the setting changes to a rehab facility called The Center for Great Apes (@CFGA) which, while in the book was in Miami, has moved to Wauchula, FL which is 90 minutes from my school.  In the book, you even meet Noelle, a chimp who knows sign language, Kenya, another chimpanzee, and Christopher, an orangutan, who are actually at the center. It is an amazing experience to take the story and turn it into reality.

Hurt Go Happy is a book that I feel not only bring our class together but teaches my students some of the most important lessons for life: to care about every living thing.

Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel (TBR)

I love Kenneth Oppel and I love apes, so I assume I will love this book.

Mindi R’s Review: This is one of those quite books of 2010 that didn’t get a lot of buzz when it came out should have. This is the story of Ben and his “half-brother” Zan, a chimp his parents have brought into the house for behavioral research. Ben at first does not appreciate having a baby chimp in the house, but as Zan begins to learn sign language, and Ben spends more and more time with him, his opinion of Zan changes, and Ben decides he would go to any lengths to make sure Zan stays safe.


Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess (TBR)

A book about Project Nim, a study done by a psychologist at Columbia University, which takes a young chimpanzee and teaches him ASL (American Sign Language) to prove that language is not only a human trait. I’ve seen the Project Nim documentary and am looking forward to reading the book.

Ape House by Sara Gruen

Isabel is a scientist studying the intelligence and communication of bonobos at the Great Ape Language Lab when the lab is bombed and the bonobos end up on a reality show.

Almost too real at times, this book took me on a roller coaster of emotions. I cried, I laughed, and it left me with a smile. It was one of those books that I had trouble not reading. I had to know what happened. The book starts off right away, straight into action, and never stops. It leaves nothing back- Sara Gruen’s description of a chimpanzee testing facility was horrifying and devastatingly accurate and her bonobo characters were so realistic, that I felt like they were my friends by the end of the book. I love when you can tell that an author is passionate about what they are writing about, because it make such a difference and Sara Gruen is definitely passionate about apes.

Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey

Gorillas in the Mist isn’t just about gorillas, it is about the environment they live in. It is about protecting them from poachers and sharing their beauty with the world. Unfortunately, she was not able to finish her research because she was murdered, probably by the poachers she was fighting against.  She did, though, leave behind a legacy, but there are still issues with the population of mountain gorillas.

I read this book and saw the movie as a teen and even then I was fascinated by this amazing woman who had the guts to go and live in the African rain forests and study a terrifying animal that we didn’t know anything about at the time.  This book is probably the most important books ever written about mountain gorillas and it is completely fascinating.

Kellee blogs at and can be found @kelleemoye.

Please support the rehabilitation efforts of

The Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, FL by visiting

or support the research, educational and protective efforts of

The Jane Goodall Institute at