Book Review: “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate

“The One and Only Ivan” is a book that’s been on my radar for quite a while, and I was so excited to finally get to read it! I’ve heard great things, but I tend to be apprehensive about books featuring talking animals. However, this book was filled with so much heart and wit, I couldn’t help but love it.

Spoiler-Free Review: Based on a true story, “The One and Only Ivan” is a story full of heart about a silverback gorilla named Ivan. And it’s written in the first-person point of view from Ivan’s perspective! It’s a wonderful, cleverly written story that doesn’t pull its emotional punches. With themes of animal captivity and powerlessness, it can be quite sad at times. However, even when things get tough, Ivan is always optimistic and finds power in his art. “The One and Only Ivan” is an inspiring and uplifting story sure to be enjoyed by both children and adults.

Below you will find a more thorough review containing my thoughts about the book. There aren’t really any spoilers ahead, but you are welcome to jump to the TL;DR summary at the bottom of the page if you’d prefer!

“The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate
The One and Only Ivan Full-Color Collector's Edition by Katherine ...
  • Year of Publication: 2012
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Summary:

“Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope.”

Trigger Warnings: Animal captivity. Animal abuse. Isolation.

Format: Paperback

Themes: Art transcends language barriers. Always have hope. Friendship can get you through the hardest of times. Family and companionship is important. Friendship is empowering. Animals should not live in isolation/captivity.

Character Development: I loved the characters in this book! I especially loved Ivan and Bob (a stray dog) and the growth they experienced throughout the story. The supporting characters also did a great job in supporting Ivan on his journey. While they may not have grown as significantly as Ivan did, they were well-rounded and their personalities were well-developed. I particularly enjoyed Ivan’s relationship with Julia (human and fellow artist). As I mentioned before, I was apprehensive about the talking animal characters, but it ended up not being an issue at all. I fell in love with all of the characters, and was totally emotionally invested in their stories.

Plot/Pacing: The story was engaging all the way through and it moved at a balanced pace. It moved quickly enough to keep a child’s attention, but it didn’t feel rushed at any point. I also liked that the story included some flashbacks to earlier in Ivan’s life; the fact that the story wasn’t entirely linear made it more interesting, and I liked that his background was kind of a mystery for a large portion of the story.

Writing Style: I would say the primary characteristic of the writing style of this book was that it was written from the first-person POV of Ivan (a silverback gorilla). It was really fun seeing the world through his eyes and understanding his perspective on all things human as well as his perspective on his own situation and captivity. His voice really shines in his narration, and his personality is just so lovable. He’s clever, optimistic, caring, resilient, curious, and so passionate about art. The writing style really allowed Ivan to shine, and that’s what really made the book so wonderful.

“Bingeability”: High. This is partially because, as an adult reading a book meant for children, it was an easy read for me. However, I think children would be just as engaged with the story and find it hard to put down as well. Part of what made it so “bingeable” is that many of the chapters are really short (a page or less), so as I was reading I kept thinking, “Oh, this chapter is short, I’ll just read one more… Okay this one’s short too, one more…” over and over again until suddenly I had read through most of the book!

Emotional Investment: Strong. It was hard reading about these animals’ lives in captivity, so I was really rooting for them to have the opportunity for a better life. The characters are all written in a way that makes them so easy to love, you can’t help but be invested in their stories.

Windows and Mirrors: Captivity/isolation. Family separation. Love of art/art as a tool.

Overall Thoughts: I really loved this story, and I think kids who love animals will definitely enjoy reading this. That being said, it was difficult to find windows and mirrors in this story since there were so few human characters. The topic of animals living in captivity (and why this is wrong) is definitely important and worthy of being featured in children’s literature, but there are still so many kids who don’t see themselves reflected in the books they read, so it’s important to make sure we’re finding and creating stories to amend this. If animals are more likely to be featured in children’s literature than children of color, this is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The Lack of Representation in Children's Literature — Chicago ...

I also thought the character of Mack was intriguing. While he was kind of the villain of the story (since he was the owner of the mall where the animals were held in captivity), I thought Applegate did a great job portraying him as the flawed human being that he was: definitely not all good, but not all bad either. He was wrong to have purchased and treated these animals in the way that he did, but you can tell he did care about Ivan and was just trying to make a living. This absolutely does not justify the things that he did, but I appreciated that his character was complex and had moments where he expressed his emotions.

Finally, there’s one quote that has really stuck with me from this novel. It’s when Stella (an elephant) says this: “A good zoo is how humans make amends” (pg. 64). I’ve always felt conflicted about zoos because I enjoy going and getting to see so many different animals, but I know it’s not where they belong and I feel guilty that they’re forced to live in captivity for my enjoyment. That’s why this quote stood out to me so much. Humans have already messed with so many species and ecosystems (hunting various animals to near-extinction for example), so maybe a well-run zoo is a way to right some of these wrongs. Animals who have been in captivity for an extended period of time would no longer be able to survive in the wild, so a good zoo (while not a perfect solution) is probably the next best option. This is acknowledged in Ivan’s story as well. Also, if a species is severely endangered, giving the animals a safe space to live and procreate could potentially be a way to ensure the survival of the species. I still feel conflicted about it, but this opened my eyes to a side of the argument that I hadn’t considered before.

Recommendation: I absolutely recommend this book (for both children and adults). It’s a wonderful story full of so much heart, and it brings up some important ideas about how we treat animals, as well as friendship, family, and art. For teachers, this would make a great read-aloud or book club/literature circle book, especially if you’re pairing it with a unit on persuasive writing. A common persuasive writing topic is whether zoos are good or bad, so this could be a good companion text for a unit like that. This would also be a great book for practicing identifying and writing about themes; there are several really great ones in this book.

Year of Publication: 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
Summary: “The One and Only Ivan” tells the story of a silverback gorilla named Ivan. He is an easygoing gorilla who is passionate about art, and he also happens to live in a shopping mall. Having grown accustomed to his life behind the glass walls of his domain, he rarely thinks about his old life and home (in fact, he can’t remember it at all unless he really tries). He’s content with his art and his animal friends (an elephant and a dog), but when Ruby, a new elephant, shows up, her longing for her family and insistence on remembering everything forces Ivan to see his “home” through new eyes, and to use his art to effect change.
Themes: Friendship. Art. Hope. Family. Powerlessness. Isolation/captivity. Animals.
Character Development:
Solid. All characters are well-developed, and Ivan grows a lot as a character throughout the story.
Engaging throughout. Mostly chronological with flashbacks to Ivan’s past.
Writing Style:
First person point of view from Ivan’s perspective. Strong voice in Ivan’s narration.
High. Short chapters and an engaging story make it difficult to put down.
Emotional Investment:
Strong; characters are very lovable and easy to connect with.
Windows and Mirrors:
Captivity/isolation. Family separation. Love of art/art as a tool.
Overall Thoughts:
Wonderful and creative story with an interesting perspective on the ethicality of zoos. Complex “villain.” Many books already feature animal characters, whereas relatively few feature children of color. This book contributes to this issue, but also presents an important topic about animal captivity and the importance of treating animals well.
Recommendation: Definitely yes for children, adults, and teachers. Great book to pair with persuasive or theme writing (as a read-aloud or book club/literature circle selection).

Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review on Monday!

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