Ivan is a mighty silverback gorilla living in a circus/mall where he has spent most of his life. His best friends are Stella, the elephant, and Bob, a stray dog, but he also loves Julia, the night janitor's daughter. But business at the circus is slow, so the owner Mack decides that they need a new act, a baby elephant named Ruby. Stella cares for Ruby but doesn't want her to grow old in a cage, so she makes Ivan promise that he will do what he can to make her free. Ivan does the only thing that he can do, he draws, and he's not certain how this will help, but it's the only hope that both he and Ruby have for a better life.
This book is told only through Ivan's point of view and the chapters are very short and concise, because, as Ivan says, gorillas do not waste words. Ivan is a very smart, kind narrator and the other animals have equally heartbreaking stories, making this a somber novel with a joyful ending. Ivan almost doesn't understand that there is life outside the cage, but Stella is able to remind him and push him toward a better life. Little Ruby is so innocent and sweet and deserving of her new fate. And even Bob, with his tough guy attitude, adds just the right amount of humor to the circus, and readers will see that his toughness is just an act.
I had no idea going in that this was going to be such a grim little book, but I am happy to report that it does leave readers with a better feeling than Applegate's last animal tale The Underneath. Again, the cover seems misleading. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it seems more hopeful than the book reads, but that's just my opinion. And while the reading level for this book is pretty low, the subject manner and shows of animal cruelty suggest an older audience. This is not a book for sensitive readers, or fierce animal lovers. (Aside: I had one co-worker that flat out refused to read a dead-dog book, and I really can't see her being too happy with this one either.)
As far as recommendations go, I would suggest this for fourth and fifth graders. This would make a great book report selection, because it's not only short and easy to read, but it also addresses many questions about character and animal cruelty and redemption. All of the characters are more than they seem, and even Mack has a softer side and a back story that makes the reader fill sympathy for him, so there is a lot to talk about here. Definitely give this to a child that is not excited about writing a book report-they will find plenty of ground to cover here.