Ivan is a silverback gorilla who has been in captivity for 9,855 days, according to his own count. He lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where humans watch him through the glass walls of his domain. He spends his days eating and watching tv. His best friends are Stella, the elephant in the domain next to his, and Bob, a stray dog who sneaks in to his domain to share his food. Stella has a wonderful memory and tells stories of her long life, but Ivan can't remember much of his own life--at least at first. But as Stella's health fails, a baby elephant named Ruby comes to join the crew at the Big Top Mall, and Ivan is called upon to hone his storytelling skills. Bit by bit, he begins to remember his own youth and weave it together in stories for Ruby.
Ivan is also an artist. He remembers making paintings with mud even when he was a young gorilla. Now Mack, his keeper, gives him occasional art supplies and then sells his creations for $20 apiece in the gift shop ($25 with frame). Ivan's best human friend is Julia. She is the daughter of George, the nighttime custodian at the Big Top Mall, and she is also an artist. She brings Ivan art supplies that Mack doesn't know about, and these two artists seem to instinctively understand each other.
As Ivan reflects more upon his past, he vows that Ruby will have a better life than he has had. He uses his art as an outlet to enact a plan that he hopes will lead to a better future for the baby elephant... and for himself.
Katherine Applegate's story is absolutely beautiful--funny in some places, heartbreaking in others, sweet and touching throughout. What makes it even better is the book was inspired by the true story of an actual gorilla named Ivan, who now lives at Zoo Atlanta (although most of the other characters come from Applegate's imagination). This is a great read for elementary students, and an especially good one for parents to share with them.