The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – and other books about Elephants and Gorillas


I know, I know, I just wrote a blog post about a book by Katherine Applegate, but I also recently read her Newbery Award winning book, The One and Only Ivan. I loved it so much I wish I could order hundreds of copies and send them all over the world, to families like you – along with Home of the Brave! (see my previous post)

The One and Only Ivan is a moving animal story that is reminiscent of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. This novel is told from the perspective of a silverback gorilla, who has lived in a small enclosure at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for 27 years. He lives there along with a senior elephant named Stella and a stray dog. Ivan has little memory of his early years in the jungle. He is confined to his domain and mostly watches TV and draws pictures which are framed and sold at a nearby souvenir shop. But times are tough and when the owner of the little Big Top Mall buys a baby elephant in order to bring in more visitors, Ivan must find the courage and resourcefulness to save her from the same fate Ivan and Stella have endured. With the help of a little girl and a set of finger paints, Ivan makes magic happen.

This is the kind of book that, when you finish the last page, you want to
1. hug the book to your chest and sigh…,
2. tell everyone else to read it,
3. hug your cat or dog, and
4. go to the zoo to see elephants and gorillas.

Another recent book featuring an elephant is The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo (author of The Tale of Despereaux and winner of two Newbery Awards). Although the elephant takes center stage (literally), the main character is a young orphaned boy searching for his little sister, Adele. It has the feel of a fairy tale, one that an old man might tell to his children around the fire on a cold winter’s night – a little eerie and forlorn, yet powerful and magical. This would make a great read-aloud for the whole family, but be prepared to read it through in one sitting – your child will not let you put that crumpled bookmark in and set it down for another time.

As humans, we are naturally drawn to animals. My own childhood home was a menagerie of pets. My mother is an animal lover, so she rarely turned away stray cats or requests from her children for pets of all kinds. We had a dog, a slew of cats and kittens, guinea pigs, a rabbit (that our neighbor thought was nice and plump and ready to cook into a delicious stew), white mice that multiplied till we counted 30, hamsters, turtles, tropical fish, and even a couple of baby chicks that my brother brought home from the flea market in Paris, one day. Favorite childhood stories among my siblings often revolve around animals and their antics. Like the time we drove in the middle of the night into Paris to get milk for preemie siamese kittens who had trouble nursing. Or Peter, our rabbit, hiding behind trees in our backyard and playfully jumping out at us, scaring us half to death. Or my mother’s futile attempts at keeping our dog, Snoopy, from digging up her genariums, time and time again. One of my most memorable Christmases was the one when a mysterious gift-wrapped shoe box turned out to be my first pet guinea pig named Winnie.


So have your child grab whatever pet is about your house – if you have severe allergies and don’t have a pet, have them grab a stuffed animal – and curl up and enjoy a good animal story. There are too many such books to list here, so I will stick to books on the theme of gorillas, elephants and zoos. I will write a post on classic animal stories at a later date.

Picture books:
One Gorilla: A Counting Book by Atsuko Morozumi – This is a gem of a counting book for preschoolers. Our son loved this one. Look for the gorilla on each page, as well as assorted other creatures, from butterflies to pandas, amongst the foliage and fruit, all in vibrant watercolors.

Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco – a tale of Patricia’s own childhood and her imaginary friend, Emma the elephant.

Bella and Stella Come Home by Anika Denise – Another imaginary elephant friend. (Is it common for children to have elephants as imaginary friends? I think it’s great, but my imaginary friends were usually small enough to fit in bed with me, or even hitch a ride in my school bag.) In this story, her imaginary friend helps her adjust to a new home. Precious!

Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathman – a humorous picture book about a little, mischievous gorilla in the zoo. All my children loved this book when they were little. It comes in board book format too (I have both paperback and board book available).

The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunoff – a classic french picture book, published in 1933, about a young elephant named Babar. Babar flees the jungle and encounters life in the city, learns many lessons, and upon his return to his herd, is appointed king of the elephants.

Elmer by David McKee – Elmer is not grey like all the other animals, he is a colorful patchwork elephant, but he desperately wants to fit it with the rest of his herd.

Koko’s Story and Koko’s Kitten by Dr. Francine Patterson – the true story of a lowland gorilla who learns 500 words of sign language. The second book, Koko’s Kitten, tells about Koko’s special friendship with a little kitten named All Ball. These stories are brought to life with Ronald Cohn’s vibrant photos.

Horton Hears a Who by Dr Seuss – a classic elephant story not to be missed!

Tarra & Bella: The Elephant and Dog Who Became Best Friends by Carol Buckley – Tarra is an elephant who, after retiring from the circus, meets a stray Lab who wanders into the her animal sanctuary in Tennessee and the two become inseparable. This true story of friendship, enhanced with large, vibrantly colored photographs, makes this a great read for all animal lovers. (As a side note, if you look this up on the web, there are youtube videos and images of them. Unfortunately, Bella died in 2011 and though Tarra deeply grieved the loss of her best friend, the other elephants in the sanctuary have reached out to console her.)

When We Went to the Zoo by Jan Ormerod – I love Jan’s illustrations. This is a great zoo book for preschoolers. Take it off the shelf in the winter and go on a trip to the zoo right in your living room. Then get out all your plastic or stuffed animals, wooden blocks (or shoe boxes, books or whatever) and create a zoo with your kids!

Mountain Gorilla by Lorle Harris – Does The One and Only Ivan trigger a desire in your child to learn more about gorillas in the wild? This is a non-fiction book about mountain gorillas with beautiful watercolor illustrations by Nancy Hansen. Also check out an early reader book entitled Amazing Gorillas by Sarah Thomson and Mountain Gorillas – In Danger of Extinctionn by Marianne Taylor.

Chapter books:
The White Elephant by Sid Fleischman – Ever wondered where the term “white elephant” comes from? Inspired by a true story from Thailand, this is a fun and easy read about a young elephant boy Run-Run who outwits a prince. As “punishment”, the prince gives the boy a white elephant.

Good Morning, Gorillas by Mary Pope Osborne – if you have a new reader and you are looking for a great series, try out the Magic Tree House books. These books are easy chapter books filled with adventure, history, magic and fun facts. This book is part of that great series.

Elephant in the Garden by Micheal Morpurgo – This novel takes place in Poland during World War II. A zoo keeper and his family adopt an elephant during heavy bombing when the zoo threatens to put down all the animals for public safety. Based on a true story this one is for older readers (10+).

Young adult/adult book:
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel – I just had to add this. This recent novel is sure to become a classic. I have several copies. I won’t give away the plot, but it definitely fits the bill for zoo stories and will take you on an adventure at sea that you will never to forget. Treat yourself! So much better than the movie version (so what else is new?).

Note: I have all the books above available on a first come, first served basis, although I try to replenish my stock regularly.

I would love to hear of other books you would like to share as well as your own animal stories.


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