The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Here is the author’s website which includes an enthralling video book trailer and information about the real Ivan. There are other fan-made trailers available on YouTube.

Discussion guide is available for download on the Harper Collins publisher website.

Summary: (from Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope


Personal Reaction: I loved it. It was extremely moving. (I did hope for more illustrations, they were so well done. Reminded me again of Flawed Dogs by Breathed or The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by DiCamillo). Very simple chapter breaks so you can read as much or as little as you want each day. Try knuckle walking for five minutes!

Any Cautions: Reading aloud to kids younger than 4th grade might cause distress for the death involved and brief discussion & display of cruelty to circus animals, so use your judgment as to age sensitivity.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Animal rights/welfare; responsibility for caring for your pets; here’s an interesting article about animal artists / art – this is a good time to showcase your drawing instruction books (like Draw 50 Animals  by Ames); discussion of elements of a story – how the simplest of illustrations move stories along.

Connections to other books: Saving Lilly by Peg Kehret, Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby (this one contains fearful scenes of animal testing); Jackie’s Wild Seattle by Hobbs; nonfiction about zoos – I don’t know of anything for kids grades 4-6, but there might be some, short nonfiction on topics like zoo enclosures, zoo doctors, etc.; books like Amazing Gorillas and Elephants.

Items to display with book: Crayons, markers, paints and paper; stuffed gorilla, small dog and elephant; photos of the real Ivan or a silverback gorilla, reproductions of Ivan billboard signs

Food items connected to story: Bananas, carrots, Pepsi, apples, oranges, cake with chocolate frosting, yogurt raisins (animal fare);  soft pretzels, popcorn, hotdogs, pink cotton candy, lemonade, ice cream cones (circus fare) *You could be gross and serve me-ball meatballs!


Welcome Home by Billi Tiner

Welcome Home

author’s blog includes video trailer, but it’s easier to find on YouTube

Summary: Jake has a puppyhood dream of the kindest man in the world being his owner. However, he is given away to a cruel man who beats him instead. He escapes the abuse only to be temporarily loved by a homeless woman, set upon by a gang of dogs, makes a few animal friends, and is hit by a car.

Personal Reaction: Simple story for young children who can tackle a chapter a day (167 page book) – I don’t know if I can recommend it as a bedtime story given some of the imagery. It’s going to be fine for 1st to 3rd graders, as long as they’re not oversensitive to the fact that people aren’t always nice to their pets (you can be assured it will turn out well because of the title). Another self-published book that could use editorial eyes, though as a read aloud/along it shouldn’t be an issue. For older kids, grades 4 and up, I much prefer the depth and richness of Flawed Dogs by B. Breathed. Both involve dogs talking about death, neglectful owners, and both even involve shootings.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Possible use as an elementary read for a class that’s taking a field trip to the pound or having an animal control officer or animal charity rep come to speak, or maybe taking up items/collections for a local animal group need.

Connections to other books: There are lots of good pet stories out there… Animal Ark Series series by Baglio, Runt by Bauer, One Small Dog by Hurwitz, Love That Dog (poetry) by Creech, Lewis and Clark and Me: A Dog’s Tale by Myers

Items to display with book: Dog stuff – collar, squeaky toys, bowl; cast iron toy truck; stuffed dogs (and a cat)

Food items connected to story: I doubt you’d be serving dog food, but there are plenty of stews you could try to make your kids laugh and cookies you could bake into dog biscuit shapes. The dog and his homeless companion visit 3 restaurants (pizzaria, bar-b-que and bar&grill) for food, but no special dishes are mentioned.

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri

author’s website including video trailer and teacher’s guide

Summary: Cole has caused his mother too much pain, so she abandons him at the doorstep of the man that abandoned them shortly after Cole’s birth. That doorstep is at a run down horse stable in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s dangerous neighborhoods. His father, Harper, has more talent for communicating with animals than with his own son.  Harper’s got his own problems with the City threatening to shut down the stables which would destroy the possibility of keeping the Cowboy Way for future generations to experience.

Personal Reaction: I felt that the problems are resolved rather quickly and easily and so thought this might be more of an elementary/middle grade novel. There is a heavy dose of historical & contemporary oppression by whites (“the man”), so this won’t soften students with that mindset. I enjoyed exploring all the information on the author’s website about the basis for the story!

Curriculum or discussion topics: This novel could be used by groups meeting to discuss anger management strategies (even paired with snippets from “Pitbulls and Parolees” Animal Planet channel show or I think there’s another show somewhere about animal therapy programs in prison); maybe arranged with a visit by therapy dogs or a field trip to a riding center?

Connections to other books: The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Hemphill (or maybe even Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World by Walter); Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West by Schlissil; biographies of Nat Love or Bill Pickett; books about horses, training and care, racing or even rodeos

Items to display with book: cowboy hat; plastic horses; saddle, brush, blanket, boots, rope; Sixers or Pistons  basketball jersey; photographs of black cowboys (historical and contemporary – see author’s note/website)

Food items connected to story: Cole loves anything from McDonald’s and the horse eats an apple pie and carrots; pop tarts and orange juice; cowboy food like chili, stew, etc.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Summary: The autobiography of a horse – Sweet and simple, good treatment makes good horses. A sad story of how the life of Black Beauty changes with each successive owner.

Personal reaction: An excellent read aloud with a child, especially if you can get your hands on an illustrated version. Just felt like reading a classic again for sheer pleasure. What kills me is that the style of writing, and the concept of a good/simple life and treatment of others is just not attractive reading to many middle graders today. I wish I had my copy of Serilda’s Star by Cook to read over again too, but I’m not ready to get all the Black Stallion series books done this summer.

Black Beauty is out of copyright and downloadable for free from Project Gutenberg in several formats. The latest movie made from this novel was in 1994.

Curriculum use: would tie in well with character ed discussions or maybe with an animal husbandry unit (animal cruelty, horse study, etc.)

Items to display with book: English saddle, bit, whip, horse figurine and/or carriage; historical photos of period – especially of the painful check-rein, London cabs, etc.

Food: (since this is horse-fare, there’s not much to share with the kids at a book party unless you want them to have a carrot, apple or sugar cube!) You could have hay, oats, bran mash as part of your items on display

Saving Lilly by Peg Kehret

Date reviewed: 2/23/03                          Grades 3-6                IL 9-12            author’s website

Summary: Erin and David do a report about animal cruelty for their 6th grade gifted class. Their regular classroom teacher rewards the class reading challenge of 300+ books with a trip to the circus. Erin and David object on the grounds of animal cruelty and show Mrs. Dawson proof about this particular company. Mrs. Dawson refuses to listen, and Erin and David are forced to come up with a way to avoid patronizing this circus, convince their teacher to listen to reason, and not turn into the class geeks at the same time. Beyond the classroom, they find that the circus elephant is not only abused, but she is about to be sold to a hunting reserve where she will be murdered. How can they let any of this happen?

Personal Reaction: I really enjoyed this book! Not only did it deal with adolescent feelings of fitting in, but the way that Erin and David face each challenge while keeping in mind that they don’t want to disrespect their teacher is commendable. They consider the viewpoints of others and agree that education is the best way to change people’s attitudes.

Points for discussion with children:  Adolescent activism (and in this era of technology, social media’s impact on activism,, etc.)

Possible classroom uses: This is a great way to show that students can make a difference within the classroom, locally, and further! It will appeal to students’ sense that that teachers CAN be wrong, and will give a positive method for dealing with the situation.

Connections to other books? Display with Will You, Won’t You? by Haas or Hope Was Here by Bauer. Both books highlight student involvement in larger issues without detracting from compelling storylines. It’s Your World–If You Don’t Like It, Change It: Activism for Teenagers by Halpern and the Young Heroes series of biographies should be made available.

Realia: model elephant and/or circus tent, circus tickets, circus poster, fundraising signs or goal chart, information about animal cruelty, toilet paper, TV camera

Food items connected to story: Strawberry milkshake