The 2013 Newbery award winner, Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, is everything you might expect it to be, plus a little extra. Ivan is a silverback gorilla, a natural-born protector and warrior of the animal kingdom; as the narrator, his stream-of-consciousness thoughts and memories make up the novel. After poachers pluck the infant Ivan away from his home in the jungle, his domain of 27 years is a run-down circus, and his only friends are the other few animals there. But with the arrival of Ruby, a baby elephant, Ivan suddenly has someone to protect, and he sets off on a course to change all their lives for the better.
Like other winners, Applegate tackles a delicate, powerful subject and makes it accessible to children. Also like others, the writing is elegant and spare, made accessible to a young audience but no less sophisticated for it. There’s humor and heartbreak, but they don’t exactly balance each other – if you can’t handle sad animal stories you will have to stay far, far away from Ivan. Despite a hopeful, happy, neatly-wound-up ending, the grim tone of this book and its experimental structure make it an unusual book for children, but one that I’d recommend to them as wholeheartedly as I would recommend it to an adult. It’s a story of friendship and adventure and creativity, and a great addition to the list of Newbery winners.
I’m going to cheat a little. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot would be my choice, but I love all four in the “All Creatures” series.
The story begins with the author’s arrival in Yorkshire during the Depression when veterinary jobs were scarce. A city boy, James has to quickly learn how to care for horses and cows in very primitive conditions.
He soon learns to love the beauty of the Dales and his eccentric clients. His tales of caring for beloved pets as well as farm animals can be heartwrenching as the patient doesn’t always survive.
There is plenty of humor in his hilarious descriptions of the Yorkshire dialect, way of life, and diet, as well as his volatile boss Siegfried and Siegfried’s irresponsible yet charming brother Tristan.
Not only are the books laugh-out-loud funny but you come to know the village of Darrowby, James, Siegfried and Tristan so well that you never want to leave the little world that Herriot has created.
Do animals have souls? Jon Katz grapples with this question, which has intrigued philosophers through the ages, in his newest book Soul of a Dog. Katz studies the animals on his Bedlam Farm, especially the dogs but also the sheep and donkeys, Mother the cat, Elvis the Snickers-eating steer, hens and goats. Katz comes to see each of them as unique individuals, capable of great feeling and understanding.
Katz’s stories about animals are a joy to read – humourous, thoughtful, unsentimental. Each animals’ personality shines through without anthromorphization. They are complete as they are, they support their humans and allow them to live their fullest life. There is Rose, the single-minded work dog, Izzy, who visits the local hospice, bringing smiles and peace to troubled minds, Fly the rescue dog who nearly died, and Lenore who is all about love and affection. A keen observer, Katz notes how his animals interact with each other and with humans and finds self-awareness and admirable qualities again and again.
For anyone who has owned a pet or loved an animal, this book is a must-read.