Thursday, August 2, 2012

The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate (ages 9 - 12)

There are times a novel settles into my heart and stays there. When I pick it back up, the narrators' voice fills me once again with emotion and resonance. The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, is a story that will touch you, that make you wonder about what it means to be human, to be alive, that will bring tears of grief and the warmth of true friendship. It would make a perfect book to read aloud as we near the end of summer or to start the school year.
The One and Only Ivan
by Katherine Applegate
illustrations by Patricia Castelao
NY: Harper, 2012
ages 9 - 12
available at your local library or on Amazon
Inspired by a true story of a gorilla kept in a concrete cage in a Washington shopping mall for 27 year, The One and Only Ivan brings you right into the heart of this noble creature as he bears this cruel fate. Applegate captures Ivan's voice from the very first pages:
"I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.

It's not as easy as it looks.

People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan. Mighty Silverback.

The names are mine, but not me. I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan.

Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.

Everyone knows the peels are the best part.

I suppose you think gorillas can't understand you. Of course, you also probably think we can't walk upright.

Try knuckle walking for an hour. You tell me: Which way is more fun?" (pp. 1-2)
Brutally captured as a youngster, Ivan has lived in his "domain", a small concrete cage with glass walls in the Big Top Mall, for 27 years. Alone. Except not quite alone. When everyone leaves the mall, he visits with Stella, the wise old elephant who "has eyes like black stars and knows more than I will ever know."

Can you imagine living for 27 years on a concrete pad surrounded by glass walls inside a shopping mall? Can you imagine thinking you are the last gorilla left alive on earth? What's the difference between animals and humans? Applegate takes readers inside Ivan's mind, asking them to think about these questions, to wonder about the implications of keeping animals in captivity.

But Applegate carries it further, as she crafts a story where Ivan is not alone, where he is motivated to help a friend, and with the help of his own friends he creates an imaginative solution. Is this partly fantasy? Surely, it is. Or perhaps it is. Or maybe not. Will we ever know what a gorilla is really thinking?

What I do know is that this is a book that will make young readers (and their parents!) think. And feel. And wonder. That, my friends, is the best kind of book.

The One and Only Ivan is written in spare, poetic text with short chapters and occasional illustrations throughout. This design of the book is beautiful - this is certainly one to get in print, not as an ebook. The plentiful white space makes it accessible to 4th graders, even some 3rd graders. And yet it is a big book, with well-realized characters and emotional punch, one that 5th and 6th graders will connect to. In fact, my biggest complaint is that the cover seems a bit "sweet" for the weight of the story.

Applegate was truly inspired by a newspaper story of the "real Ivan" who was kept in a shopping mall in Washington state for nearly three decades before finally being moved to Zoo Atlanta. Read more about his story here.

There are many resources and reviews of The One and Only Ivan available:
The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers HarperCollins. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

Review ©2012 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. Younger children enjoy books that use word repetition, rhymes, and predictable text. Look for books with colorful pictures and simple words.

  2. I've just finished reading this book, it was amazing! And then when I put a book report on my blog ( She commented!