To reread or not to reread…that’s a question that I rarely ask myself. Although many people may disagree, I hardly ever find myself with the urge to reread a book, regardless of how good it was the first time around. Books just don’t usually hold my attention if I already know how it’s all going to end. This book is an exception to that self-imposed rule.
Ivan is a gorilla. Not just any gorilla, but instead a silverback, the most majestic of all gorillas. But instead of reigning over his tribe in the jungles of Africa, Ivan has spent the better part of his life behind a glass wall. For 27 years he’s been the star attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Arcade. He spends his days watching humans, who in turn watch him. He’s formed a low opinion of most humans who he has come in contact with, but he holds the other animals around him in high regard. There’s Stella, a wise and gentle soul in an elephant’s body. There’s Bob, a stray dog who has found his way into the mall and on top of Ivan’s belly for naps. And then comes Ruby, a baby elephant brought into the mall to revive lackluster ticket sales.
The story is told completely from Ivan’s point of view, complete with some of his gorilla-created vocabulary. He’s often puzzled by humans and the things they do, but until Ruby arrives he’s never really questioned his circumstances. Then the memories begin to come along, subtle at first. The taste of a mango, the colors of the jungle, the feel of his mother’s fur, the sound of his father’s voice. Suddenly Ivan’s no longer content with his dismal yet predictable life at the Big Top Mall.
So why was this one a reread for me? One simple reason-I wanted to share the innocence, joy, and sadness of Ivan’s story with my students as a read aloud. The story brings to mind questions that young children seem to innately know the answers to. What are animals thinking? Can they feel emotions such as sadness? Do they remember? And what right do we, as humans, have to dictate how and where they live? Although the book is intended and marketed toward a younger audience, it’s such a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that it will resonate with readers and listens of all ages. The chapters are short, the language is beautiful yet simple, and the well-spaced illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the story. Buy it for yourself, buy it for a friend, or buy it to read to a young person in your life.
It’s easy enough to write about difficult topics, especially if it’s fiction. Child abuse, incest, murder, school shootings…they’ve all been covered at one time or another with varying degrees of success. But to be able to do so in a way that doesn’t make the reader cringe and push the book aside is no easy feat. Kristina Riggle has done just that with this intriguing novel.
The story centers on the inappropriate relationship between seventeen-year-old Morgan and her math teacher, TJ Hill. Morgan has always been considered mature for her age and seems wise beyond her years. A gifted musician who also writes poetry, she finds herself tiring of the usual teenage drama all around her. A beautiful young woman,she’s nonetheless extremely self-conscious about a scar on her face resulting from a childhood injury. TJ is one of the most popular teachers at the high school. He has an easy rapport with his students. He’s also under a huge amount of stress at home as he and his wife, Rain, continue a barrage of medical treatments as they attempt to conceive a child. Morgan provides a shoulder for him to lean on as he deals with this pressure. She, in turn, thrives on the attention from a wise, mature older man. When their relationship is discovered and charges are filed, Morgan finds herself sitting opposite her parents in the courtroom as she defends the man she believes to be the love of her life. The question is, was Morgan the victim of a manipulative older man or is she a delusional teenager obsessed with her teacher?
If these were the only two characters in this story it would still be a winner. But the author has added a cast of supporting characters that provide enough of a story on their own. There’s Joe, Morgan’s gruff but loving father who just also happens to be the assistant principal at the high school. Dinah, Morgan’s mother, thrives on being involved in her children’s lives but also runs a successful, popular coffee hangout for the local teens. At the same time, she must stay on top of Morgan’s younger twin brothers, Jared and Connor who suffer academic and behavior issues as a result of a difficult birth. And of course there’s Rain, TJ’s supportive but unsuspecting wife who bears a striking resemblance to Morgan.
A story with this many characters always has the potential for being a big confusing mess. Not in this case. Riggle successfully ties everything in to the main storyline while at the same time keeping the reader’s interest spread all around. The story alternates between Morgan, TJ, and to a lesser degree Rain while at the same time keeping us interested in what’s going on with everyone else. As I read this book, I found myself connected to all of the characters, not just Morgan and TJ. There’s no question that this type of relationship is never appropriate, regardless of the student’s age. Those in such positions of power bear a huge responsibility for staying within the boundaries. This story deals with the legalities and morality of such a situation while at the same time showing how other friends and family members are affected. Five stars for me!