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Originally published Saturday, April 7, 2012 at 6:03 AM

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'The One and Only Ivan' among new novels for kids

Kids' Books: New titles include "The Mighty Miss Malone," "Wonder" and "The One and Only Ivan," a story loosely based on Tacoma's Ivan the Gorilla. The silverback now lives at the Atlanta Zoo.

Scripps Howard News Service

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Check out these great new novels for kids ages 8-12:

• Katherine Applegate is the author of a couple of children's series, "Roscoe Riley Rules" and the best-selling "Animorphs."

But Applegate's newest book is something completely different. Titled "The One and Only Ivan" (HarperCollins, $16.99), her novel features a gorilla as the main protagonist. It's an unusual literary device, and it's also a gutsy move, since some readers absolutely refuse to read books with talking animals.

Yet, Applegate is such a skillful writer that even readers who avoid animal fantasies should give this book a chance. For while the book is written from the first-person view of Ivan, the gorilla, Applegate's story has much to say about the human condition, especially the relationship between humans and animals. This book deals with some tough issues, but it's ultimately not a heavy read because of Ivan's huge heart.

Written in short bursts of chapters, some of them much less than a page long, Applegate's story tells of Ivan's life as the main attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Over the years, Ivan has become pretty much resigned to this bored captivity, and contends that — unlike Stella, his elephant friend in the next cage — he doesn't even remember his life in freedom as a young gorilla.

Ivan has another special friend, a human named Julia, who comes each night with her father, the janitor for the Big Top Mall. Julia loves to draw, and Ivan has discovered that he, too, enjoys creating art from paper and crayons.

Then Ruby, a young elephant, is added to the Big Top Mall's attractions. She thrills Stella and the other animals with her enthusiastic company, yet her presence also forces them to confront the miserable reality of their existence, and spurs Ivan to find a way out for all of them.

Weeks after finishing Applegate's beautifully told story, readers will likely find themselves still thinking of Ivan.

• August Pullman, better known as Auggie, considers himself a pretty normal kid, even though he knows all too well that others literally don't see him that way. Born with a deformed face that makes "his features look like they've been melted, like the drippings on a candle," the 10-year-old is used to people averting their eyes when they see him.

So, when his parents decide that it's time for Auggie to move from home schooling to the fifth grade at a private school, Auggie has more than the usual share of "new kid" jitters. And as author R.J. Palacio details in "Wonder" (Knopf, $15.99), Auggie is right to worry. While he excels in classes, Auggie finds that most of his classmates openly shun him. Yet there are some notable exceptions, beginning with a girl named Summer, who's self-confident enough to face down peer pressure and befriend Auggie on his first day of school.

The tale of how Auggie fares in school would make a fascinating read all by itself. But Palacio does something to make it extraordinary: she moves back and forth from Auggie's first-person narrative to the first-person narratives of other characters, including Via, Auggie's older sister (and only sibling); Jack, a classmate who eventually becomes one of Auggie's best friends; Via's boyfriend; and others. The result is a beautifully written collage of viewpoints that both expands and deepens Auggie's story, showing the impact of one extraordinary person's life.

• Readers first met 12-year-old Deza Malone in a brief scene in "Bud, Not Buddy" by Christopher Paul Curtis. "Bud "won the 2000 Newbery Medal, given annually to the best-written children's book.

Now Deza is back and the star of Curtis' newest book, "The Mighty Miss Malone" (Random House, $15.99). In "Bud," Deza and her mother were living in a Depression-era camp for homeless people in Flint, Mich., but "The Mighty Miss Malone"opens before then, at a time when Deza, her brother Jimmie and their parents were still living together in Gary, Ind.

The Malone family may be desperately poor but is rich in its closeness. The family is torn apart when Deza's dad has a terrible accident and leaves home, ostensibly to look for work. The situation becomes increasingly dire until Deza and her mother and brother are forced out of their home. They leave Gary in search of work, which is how they end up in the Flint camp.

Things go from bad to worse for Deza when Jimmie, a promising singer, leaves to try to make a living in nightclubs. It seems like the Malone family will never be reunited, but Deza and her mother refuse to give up hope, the only slender ray of light in their lives.

Curtis is, as usual, a master of characterization, and readers will love getting to know Deza, Jimmie and others. While the book has some moments of humor, it lacks Curtis' customary comedic touch, but the somber — at times, grim — tone fits the story he's telling. In an afterword, Curtis calls it a "tragedy" that the situation for U.S. poor children isn't so different today.

Meanwhile, Curtis fans will have fun comparing Bud's version of meeting Deza (in Chapter 8 of "Bud") with Deza's account of meeting Bud (in Chapter 22 in "Malone"). Who's telling the truth? That's for young readers to decide.

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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