This story is about promises kept, selflessness, and friendship. It’s about Ivan keeping his promise to his friend, Stella, and trying to get Ruby to a better place.
Ivan is a silverback gorilla. For twenty-seven years, Ivan has lived in the mall. Every day, Ivan is in his domain watching the people outside as they go about their lives. Ivan hardly ever thinks about his old life when he was living in the jungle. Instead, he watches television, draws, and paints. Ivan’s life is not sad. Sometimes he’s happy, especially when he’s painting. But Ivan doesn’t seem to realize what he doesn’t have. He doesn’t realize that his cage is small and he insists on calling it a domain and not a cage.
There’s a part where Ivan says “I know what most humans think. They think gorillas don’t have imaginations. They think we don’t remember our pasts or ponder our futures. Come to think of it, I suppose they have a point. Mostly I think about what is, not what could be.” This suggests that Ivan might not have any hope. I think it’s more that Ivan doesn’t hope for anything because he doesn’t know what to hope for. So when Stella tells him about a zoo, a place where she says humans try to make amends to the animals, he begins to have something to hope for.
Ivan isn’t the only animal at the mall. There are elephants, dogs, and birds. But, Ivan is the only gorilla. All of the animals, except Ivan, are part of a small circus. But as Mack, the human boss at the mall, says, it’s enough for Ivan to be Ivan.
Ivan’s best friends are Stella and Bob. Stella is an older, wise elephant who remembers much of her old life in the jungle, and knows many stories. Stella and Ivan have a very strong friendship that compels Ivan to make a special promise to her. His other friend, Bob, is a crafty stray dog who stays at the mall, but doesn’t want an actual home. Bob’s would rather find his own food than be fed by someone else. At one point in the story, when he is asked why he doesn’t want a home, he answers, “Everywhere is my home, I am a wild beast, my friend: untamed and undaunted.
The other main character is Ruby. Ruby comes into the story when business at the mall slows down, and fewer people come to see the animals. Mack decides to get a small baby elephant (Ruby) for the circus. Ruby is young and naïve and asks lots of questions. When Ivan sees her in her small cage, and when he sees how Mack makes her practice her circus routine even when she’s very tired, Ivan decides he must make some changes.
The story is narrated by Ivan. But as Ivan says, gorillas don’t waste words. I think the author did a great job incorporating that concept – short sentences and descriptions without wasting words – into the way the book was written, but without making the story too simple.
Although this story is a work of fiction, it was inspired by the true story of a gorilla that also lived in a store for many years before going to Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, and later to Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia. You can learn about this story here.
This book has won many awards including the 2013 John Newbery Medal. It’s a wonderful story for anyone ages 8-14.