The One and Only Ivan

Newbery Medal winner The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate has made a huge impression on Alex and others in his class. What a compelling story Ms. Applegate has shared with the world.

The One and Only Ivan

I didn’t realize until I brought the book home that The One and Only Ivan was in Alex’s class library. I had been hearing great things about it recently and knew we simply had to read it. Alex undoubtedly would have read it sometime this year during free time in his classroom—I just made it happen sooner.

The One and Only Ivan was inspired by the true story of a gorilla named Ivan who was captured as an infant from the Republic of Congo. The real Ivan was raised in a home until the owner could no longer keep him. For the next 27 years, he lived in a shopping mall in Washington State. As a result of public outcry, he was moved to Zoo Atlanta, where he remained the rest of his life.

In The One and Only Ivan, Ms. Applegate has written a fictional account of Ivan’s life, and has created friends for Ivan at the shopping mall as well. Ivan lives with an elephant named Stella and a dog named Bob, and they are later joined by a baby elephant named Ruby. Each night, a ten-year-old human girl named Julia visits them while her father cleans the mall.

The novel is written in first person, with Ivan as the narrator. The illustrations, by Patricia Castelao, are sparse and are in black and white, but they wonderfully convey Ivan and his world.

Ms. Applegate poignantly describes Ivan’s life as a young gorilla living with the mall’s owner before he moved to the mall itself:

In my new life as a human, I was well tended. I ate lettuce leaves with Thousand Island dressing, and caramel apples, and popcorn with butter. My belly ballooned.

But hunger, like food, comes in many shapes and colors. At night, lying alone in my Pooh pajamas, I felt hungry for the skilled touch of a grooming friend, for the cheerful grunts of a play fight, for the easy safety of my nearby troop, foraging through shadows.

. . . sometimes I lay awake, wishing for the warmth of another just like me, asleep in a night nest of tender prayer-plant leaves.

Ivan begins the novel by explaining that in his current domain, there is no one to protect. The novel is a story of self-discovery, as Ivan grows from simply a friend into a comforter, protector, and true silverback. Over the course of the novel, he learns from his friends that even though they are all in cages and separated by glass, they can still protect one another.

Without preaching to kids, Ms. Applegate has found a way to raise awareness about the treatment of animals. The different ways humans are described in the book may be eye-opening to some. But it would not be realistic to tell a tale about animals captured in the wild who had only good memories of that experience. Likewise, the treatment of animals behind bars is not always positive.

Alex says “it was great. I liked how Stella said that Ivan could take care of Ruby. And I like how he watches TV and how Mack says he has a lousy jump shot. And how he drank soda and sat in a high chair. I like how Bob sleeps on his stomach. It made me feel happy in the end. I felt scared when I thought the man with the camera would pick up the clawstick and jab Ruby. I’m glad I read it.”

Ms. Applegate is the author of the Roscoe Riley Rules chapter book series, the picture book The Buffalo Storm, and the novel Home of the Brave. She and her husband, Michael Grant, wrote the Animorphs series. Ms. Applegate’s website is

It is always wonderful when you can find a book that you know you will read again and again. I am sure Alex will return to The One and Only Ivan and find something new and important in it many times.

Have you read any great books lately?

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