The One and Only Ivan

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 2013

The One and Only Ivan

by Katherine Applegate

Age: 8+ (warning: dark content – read full review)

Interests: animals, gorillas, elephants, animals in captivity, animal rights, cruelty to animals, art, ethics, circus

Also by this author: Crenshaw, Wishtree, Home of the Brave, the Animorphs series, Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla

NB. This novel was inspired by a real mall gorilla named Ivan, who was relocated to a zoo and became famous for his artistic abilities. The author here has added other characters and situations for the sake of the story.

Ivan lives quietly in captivity, in a tiny animal circus located inside a mall. He’s been there for years and never thinks about his childhood in the jungle. He never goes outside and has begun to think that he is the only gorilla alive in the world. He seems content to live out his days there with his friends – a stray dog named Bob and the performing elephant Stella. Then one day a baby elephant (Ruby) is added to the menagerie. Stella becomes sick and, through neglect, dies, but not before exacting Ivan’s promise to look after Ruby and see that she does not live out her days in a cage. Ivan takes this new responsibility very seriously and tries to think of a way to get Ruby out of the mall and into the larger-habitat zoo that he’s seen on the tv in his cage.

His skill as an artist turns out to be the solution. Thanks to the help of the mall custodian’s daughter Julia, who supplies him with paints and paper, Ivan manages to communicate his goal to her and then to the public at large. As his fame grows, a group of animal rights protestors gather outside the mall, and Ivan gets his wish and more, as not just Ruby but he, too, is taken to the zoo. After a period of adjustment, he goes outside for the first time in years and haltingly takes steps toward becoming the dominant silverback male of the zoo family and wooing a mate.

This story is told in the first person from Ivan’s point of view, and while it indulges in a fair amount of anthropomorphizing, Ivan’s narration is extremely engaging and charming. He is certainly a fully-realized, wonderful character. His memories of his father and the traditional protective role of the silverback male are what lead him to take his promise to Stella so seriously. The author is also very successful in depicting the difficulty that Ivan has in adjusting to even the tamed wildness of the zoo habitat.

The language is very easy to read and the chapters are very short, so it will appeal to readers young and old. The only thing to be aware of, regarding the younger readers, is the distant, but violent side of the story. Ivan’s suppressed memories of the jungle, when he finally digs deep, include the fact that when he and his twin sister were captured, the humans killed and dismembered his parents. It’s mentioned briefly, and not in any gory detail, but it’s quite poignant and troubling, especially since a second-hand store in the mall has in its window a gorilla-hand ashtray. There are stories of past cruelties and kindnesses from humans, and there are very sad parts, as when Stella dies through lack of veterinary care. A ‘claw-stick’ is used to train animals, and though it’s not used on Ruby or Ivan, the baby elephant is threatened with it. So even though this book’s language is accessible to young readers, some may might find the content a little too disturbing, though it’s all a real part of the lives of animals in captivity.

This book should really make readers think about the ethics of our treatment of animals. They will certainly view captive animals with much more sympathy. Even though life in the zoo is seen as the “happy ending” (it’s certainly a million times better than a cage in a mall), this book may lead to discussions about whether or not it is ethical to have animals on display for human entertainment at all.

Entertaining, eye-opening, thought-provoking, extremely engaging and easily read, this is a masterfully written novel. Even though I read it a year or so ago, when I picked it up yesterday to flip through it for this review I couldn’t help but read the whole thing again. Good for all ages and reading levels, though as I’ve said, it may be too dark for more sensitive readers.

For readers who want to find out more about the real-life gorilla artist Ivan, Katherine Applegate has also written a nonfiction picture book about Ivan’s life entitled Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.