I have never felt it necessary to justify or create excuses for my obsession with books. I’m that crazy lady who’ll risk running late in order to sneak a quick look in a secondhand bookshop or to finish the last gripping sentences of the penultimate chapter of a thriller before starting on dinner. My children, from a scarily early age, understood that bookstores were the only places where their pestering had any power and I’ve overheard them telling their friends more than once ‘the only thing my mum will always say yes to, is a book’. I’m not embarrassed about this. I’d say yes if they asked if they could eat a vegetable, right?
See, I consider my love of books and all things literary to be not only entirely excusable and justified, but undeniably essential to my health and well being as well, like vegetables. This year things got even better. I became a teacher. So now my obsession with scouring websites and book forums for recommendations on what to read has extended beyond my own interests and those of my children. Now I get to look for books for my students as well, and in this new role I find an increased sense of responsibility and duty. Not only do the books I choose to teach to my grade 3 and 4 students need to interest and entertain, they also need to be embedded with moral lessons, rich in layers of meaning and importantly (for teaching purposes and my sanity) easy enough to read.
I was lucky enough to all of these elements and more in Kathryn Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. The protagonist Ivan is a gloriously calm and composed silverback gorilla who is the main attraction at a struggling American shopping mall. He resides next to an elephant called Stella and the two of them perform for patrons multiple times a day. Applegate manages to have Ivan narrate allowing young readers the unique perspective of the animal in the cage. In the classroom a beautiful lesson on empathy naturally ensues as the story unfolds. There are debates to be had on whether or not animals should be kept in captivity. The idea of what heroes are, what they sound like and look like arises when Ivan decides to help his younger elephant friend escape. There are so many teaching opportunities with regard to making connections and studying text structure as well as character studies about the stunningly drawn animal personalities that the students learn to love. The vocab is real and rich and intriguing to young students without being daunting. I love this book and my students do too. I will teach this again and again as my career continues. I implore any teacher, veterans or newbies like me to consider this one. I think your students will be quickly drawn-in by the setting and plot and if they are still reluctant, try this carrot … Disney have bought the movie rights.