The One and Only Choice

I often  imagine a group of 16 knowledgeable librarians sitting in a room in Seattle talking about which 2012 book is most distinguished. I’m just going to come out and say it: no matter how many times I run this scenario through my head, it always ends with them selecting The One and Only Ivan. I’ve read what the Heavy Medal Blog has to say about the book, and I’m sorry, they could not be more wrong. I can only hope that the committee does not make the same mistake. Please understand that I am not saying that other amazing books were not published in 2012, I just think Ivan has risen to the top.

When making statements in class, my students are expected to back them up with evidence. If we are describing characters they must back up the character trait they are assigning a character, with evidence from the text. It wouldn’t be fair for me to make these statements about Ivan without backing them up with some evidence from this distinguished novel.

I’m going to just focus on 3 pages of the book. I hope my little post can shine a little bit of light as to why I think this book is one of the 10 greatest middle grade novels ever written.


I am writing this blog post on a school day in which I read a section of Ivan aloud to my students. I will focus on pages 34-36, the chapter is titled: bob. In this chapter we learn some background information about Bob.

If you’d like to picture the read aloud, please imagine 25 fourth graders sitting in a circle on the carpet facing each other as we read. I am sitting in the circle with them.

From the fourth paragraph on page 34:

I’ve tried to share my food with Bob, but he is a picky eater and says he prefers to hunt for himself.

This line of text comes directly after we learn that Bob eats food out of the trash and laps up spilled lemonade. My fourth graders were all smiles when I read this line and we had a handful of chuckles.

A few paragraphs later (page 35):

Bob’s tail makes me dizzy and confused. It has meanings within meanings, like human words. “I am sad,” but my teeth are still sharp.”

Gorillas don’t have any use for tails. Our feelings are uncomplicated. Our rumps are unadorned.

We are now at a point of the read aloud where nearly everyone is laughing and smiling. I can see them picturing Bob and his different “tail moods.”

I pause. The class focuses. They don’t know it yet, but Ms. Applegate is about to punch them in the stomach.

Bottom of page 35:

Bob used to have three brothers and two sisters. Humans tossed them out of a truck onto the freeway when they were a few weeks old. Bob rolled into a ditch.

The other did not.

Twenty-five shocked faces. Silence. Some students are looking around to see how their friends are reacting. A few students close their eyes to take it in alone. Most students just stare with broken-hearted eyes at the carpet in front of them.

This is one of those moments that as a teacher you don’t know what to say. You could take a conversation in so many different directions. We talked a little bit about what happened but not much. They didn’t need to talk about it with me. I could tell that they wanted to be left alone with their thoughts.

As my class begins to come back to me, I continue reading. The bottom of page 36 is just one example of why I think that this book is just crazy awesome.

Bottom of page 36:

I dreamed that I’d eaten a furry doughnut, and when I woke in the dark, I discovered a tiny puppy snoring ont top of my belly.

It had been so long since I’d felt the comfort of another’s warmth that I wasn’t sure what to do. Not that I hadn’t had visitors. Mack had been in my domain, of course, and many other keepers. I’d seen my share of rats zip past, and the occasional wayward sparrow had fluttered in through a hole in my ceiling.

But they never stayed long.

I didn’t move all night, for fear of waking Bob.

As I finish the chapter many of my close to tears students are now smiling. You can tell that their heart is a little bruised, but they’ve found hope in Bob and Ivan’s first encounter.


I’m not sure that I’ve been able to capture the magic that Ivan is creating in my classroom. The emotions that my students felt and experienced in 3 pages moved them in ways that not many book can. These motions were not pulled out of them by a classroom conversation, they were natural powerful emotions that came from this distinguished and beautiful book.

I just felt like I needed to write about Ivan. Thanks for reading.



7 thoughts on “The One and Only Choice

  1. Beautifully written, Colby. I enjoy your posts, and this one moved me to comment. I “tried out” The One and Only Ivan this summer by reading it aloud to my sixth and ninth grader. They were captivated and moved, begging me to read on and on. I can only picture how engaged your 4th graders were. Thanks for sharing and reminding me yet again why I love children’s books and why I’m lucky to get to share them with kiddos.


  2. Hi Colby, I don’t always read your posts, but I did this one. I loved that your students made a ‘good luck’ video card for the Newbery committee. And I too love Ivan. There are several teachers reading it aloud right now and they didn’t know that Ivan is based on a true story, were excited about that too. I liked the examples you showed and explained about the reaction with the students. I’ll cross my fingers for it.


  3. I read this post with tears in my eyes. I am also reading “Ivan” (as they fondly call the book) with my class of 5th graders and our experience has been exactly as you have described. My students have also reacted to the wonderfully simple yet powerful writing of Katherine Applegate – in some parts I see students gasping and holding the hand of someone close for support, then laughing out loud at the antics of Bob or words from Ivan. I have also paused at some challenging points as each student either grappled with the unexpected turn of events and either talked softly with a friend or just sat with their own thinking to come to terms with what they have just heard. They have talked and written about the book, made predictions and taken all the characters into their hearts. My students are also expected to back up their statements with evidence from the book and their insights into the characters and deep thinking about the events in the book has floored me. One of my students told me yesterday that she just did not want this book to end. Yes, I very distinguished novel.


  4. I couldn’t agree more with the power of this story. I was reading the book out loud to my 8yo daughter recently, and my 5yo son walked into the room. He heard no more than a paragraph (oh, I’ll try to find which one, but it talks about how lonely Ivan is). My son burst into tears! I couldn’t believe it – this 5yo, who had heard no more than 50 words of the story, and feeling it so deeply. THAT is one powerful piece of writing.


  5. I agree about the power of Ivan 100%! I read the book aloud to my 8yo daughter. My son, 5, walked in the room at one point. He heard no more than a paragraph to two (and oh! I don’t know which one at the moment, but it ended with Ivan talking about feeling lonely). My son burst into tears! I couldn’t believe it – in approximately 50 words, this 5yo *understood* the story. THAT is a powerful story.


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