The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (absolutely not) Reviewed by Donalyn Miller

On two occasions, Colby, Cindy, and I have declined contributors’ offers for book reviews even though we loved the book. We did not review Linda Urban’s Hound Dog True—the book that launched the idea for Nerdy Book Club—until almost a year after the blog began. And in spite of constant mention in tweets and Nerdy Book Club blog posts and book lists, we have never posted a review of The One and Only Ivan.

Are you surprised? I can wait while you google it. You won’t find one, but go ahead.

Although we championed Ivan from the very start, we turned down over twenty requests to review the book. When The One and Only Ivan won the 2013 Newbery Medal earlier this year, we stopped getting review queries. The Nerdy Book Club was such a vocal supporter of Katherine and Ivan’s story that most contributors assumed we had posted a review already. Surely, Nerdy Book Club had reviewed Ivan by now.

You can photograph a snowflake, but it’s not the same as watching one melt on your mitten. You can talk to your daughter on the phone, but it’s not the same as whispering in her ear while she sits on your lap.  No review can adequately capture The One and Only Ivan’s special qualities. If you haven’t read Ivan with children, I claim that you still haven’t read it.  Ivan is a wonderful book, but to the children who’ve experienced his story—Ivan is a friend. Ivan is a legend.

I read The One and Only Ivan with my fourth grade class last fall. Every day, we sat on the carpet together, entranced by Ivan’s experiences. My students were horrified by the squalid conditions Ivan and his companions endured as attractions at the Big Top Mall. We talked about animals and our responsibilities to take care of them.  We talked about art and how it provides happiness and comfort to us. We talked about what it meant to be a good friend.

Ivan’s story is hard to bear and it was difficult to read sad moments out loud to my kids. On numerous occasions, Daniel would get up from the floor, wander over to the Kleenex box and bring it to me, saying, “I knew you were about to cry Mrs. Miller, I could hear it in your voice.” The box would pass around our reading corner until everyone took a tissue.

Destiny sat at my elbow every day, peering over my arm to get a look at the illustrations first. I could feel her body grow rigid with outrage when Stella and Ruby received cruel treatment. Destiny loves animals more than your typical fourth grader—and that’s saying something. She covered her notebook and locker with animal photos. Whenever she needed a new book to read, she asked, “Mrs. Miller, do we have any more books about dogs or wolves that I haven’t read, yet?” Bob was Destiny’s favorite character, of course, and she worried all the way to the end what would happen to the scrappy little dog.

We had our own Julia in class. She took special pride in sharing a name with Ivan’s artist friend. Whenever we read about Julia’s kindness toward Ivan and the other animals, our Julia beamed. When we finished Ivan, Julia was the first child to reread it.  Her mother finally bought her a book of her own, so she would return our class copy.

Racing to finish Ivan before winter break, my students and I spent every possible moment reading it. When we finished the last page, the kids begged me to read the author’s note. My apologies to my author friends, but in all my years of teaching this has never happened. My students weren’t ready to leave Ivan. If I had immediately turned back to page one and started over, they would have been up for it.

When we returned from winter vacation, a new student joined our class. Neil was shy and a bit overwhelmed by my boisterous students. The kids descended on him seconds after he arrived, questioning Neil about what he liked, where he lived, what bus he took home, and whether he liked to play soccer at recess.  The kids crowded around Neil and Kenzie took charge of introductions, “I am Kenzie, this is Ryleigh, this is Josh…” Mathew wandered over to our read aloud shelf, pulled down The One and Only Ivan, and presented it to Neil, “And this, is Ivan. You have to read about him. He’s part of the class, too.”

Daniel was preoccupied with Neil’s arrival, so I had to find the tissue box on my own that time.

ivanOn the day of the ALA Awards, my students were dismayed that they had to go to P.E. and couldn’t watch the Newbery announcement live. Promising them that I would follow the tweets, I was alone in my classroom when I read that The One and Only Ivan won the 2013 Newbery Medal. My respect for our P.E. coaches was the only thing that prevented me from running to the gym to tell the kids. When I rounded the corner to pick up the kids, I broke into a little hopping jog, and yelled, “Ivan won the Newbery award!” My students squealed and clustered around me, all talking at once, begging me to re-enact my exact feelings when I read the news. It was all I could do to get them back in a line and return to class.

Colby Sharp had a snow day and was sitting at home when Ivan’s Newbery win was announced. I called him on my lunch break and we celebrated together—sharing our excitement and expressing our joy that Ivan would live forever because of that little gold seal.

After lunch, I showed the kids the first tweet from Harper Collins with Ivan’s gold seal on the cover. Mathew, complained, “Mrs. Miller, our copy of Ivan doesn’t have a sticker on it.”

Destiny said, “ We knew about Ivan before it won an award. Our copy is better.”

“I will order us another copy with the sticker on it,” I promised, “We need a new one, any way, our copy is worn from so many readers!”

At the end of the year, my principal asked me to loop to fifth grade with my students. This summer, I attended my first Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder award banquet. Listening to Katherine’s triumphant acceptance speech and meeting her in the receiving line later, I wished my students could have been with me. Sharing my program and photos with the children this fall, they expressed their excitement and envy. I am thrilled that I was able to attend the ceremony and I will treasure the experience always, but my best memories will remain my experiences with my students as we read and shared The One and Only Ivan together.

The One and Only Ivan was selected as a Bluebonnet Award nominee, and every elementary school in Texas will promote Ivan and the other 19 nominated books as reading selections this year. Students will vote for their favorite book next spring—choosing the state winner. Seeing the Bluebonnet Award display in our library, Hailey said, “Can I just vote for The One and Only Ivan, now?” My kids still strut and boast that they knew about Ivan, “before the rest of the world.”

I have 26 students in my class this year, but our class members are legion. Alongside Destiny and Mathew’s names you can find Auggie Pullman, Laura Ingalls, Fern Arable, Martin the Warrior, and Ivan, the mighty silverback. Ivan is real to my kids. Although we discussed that The One and Only Ivan was loosely based on actual events, my students don’t care which parts are invented. My students consider Katherine Applegate Ivan’s biographer.  You can’t downplay how important this is. It’s not a cute childhood fantasy. In the same way that Charlotte and Wilbur are real to me, in the same way that Searchlight is real to my daughters, Ivan—and Stella, Ruby, and Bob—are real to my students and will remain a part of them always. In my quiet heart, I know that our class will remain a part of them always, and Ivan is one reason why.

And we still haven’t reviewed The One and Only Ivan on Nerdy Book Club. How could we review a friend?

Donalyn Miller is a fifth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.