Inspired by a true story, Katherine Applegate tells one of the most compelling animal stories I have ever read. Written in short prose from the perspective of Ivan, a silverback gorilla who was poached from his home in Zaire and purchased by mall owner, Mack, as an infant. Ivan starts his life in America living with Mack and his wife, dressed in baby clothes, eating at their kitchen table. But, as Ivan grows, his gorilla behavior makes it increasingly difficult to keep him in their home. Mack purchases the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade and makes his living displaying Ivan for many happy shoppers. He is joined by Stella, a Circus elephant who performs every day and Bob, a feisty stray dog, who sneaks into Ivan’s domain to sleep on his big, warm stomach each night. Ivan accepts his life in his small “domain.” He enjoys television, junk food and visits from Julia, the janitor’s daughter, who teaches him to draw with crayons and paint.
As the years go on, Mack finds it more difficult to keep up the mall. Ivan grows and is not as cute as he once was and people stop coming to the Exit 8 Big Top Mall. Mack can’t pay the bills and care for the animals and the neglect takes its toll on Stella’s health. As a last ditch effort, Mack purchases Ruby, a baby elephant. Ruby’s homesickness and fear makes Ivan long for his wild infancy. And when Stella the elephant dies, Ivan vows to find a better life for Ruby, a life outside of the tiny cages at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall. Ivan knows from watching TV that zoo’s are wonderful places with wide spaces for animals. Bob says “a good zoo is how humans make amends.” Using his painting skills, Ivan creates a billboard sized painting of Ruby living happily in a zoo. With Julia’s help, he gets the billboard posted on the highway for all who drive by to see and eventually, Ruby and Ivan make their way out of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade and to a new, better life.
Though peppered with sadness, this story is ultimately triumphant for all of the characters. The short, flowing prose would make this book an excellent read aloud for families who can talk about the conservation and animal cruelty issues addressed in this book as they read. Readers will be hard pressed not to fall in love with straight forward and sweet Ivan and all of his animal friends at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall.
Posted by: Kelly