[The One and Only Ivan]: A Review

Happy Monday, my friends! I hope you had a fabulous weekend.

Today I am excited to review The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. This month, the gal picking the book club book wanted to read a children’s novel, which I think is awesome as we haven’t read any in our book club. She brought a lot of great options–many of them Newbery Honor books–and we eventually decided on The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (which is a fantastic book that I can’t wait to review!). The One and Only Ivan was a close second. I definitely left the discussion with several new books on my TBR.

One of my reading goals this year is to read more award winners. So this novel is a great choice as the Newbery Medal winner in 2013.

Initial Thoughts:

  • I read this novel super quickly. It could have been one sitting if I didn’t have a toddler 😉 It has a lot of short chapters and little drawings that make it easy for readers of all ages to enjoy (especially young or new readers). If you are not reading it with a child, keep the intended audience in mind. It’s a simple story but also very powerful.
  • I did not know this was based on a true story of a real gorilla named Ivan! It was cool to do a bit of research about him and his story.
  • I would not consider myself an animal rights activist. But I sure found myself feeling emotional about the conditions of the animals in the mall/circus. I think Katherine Applegate does a great job of balancing her story and the animal rights issues.


The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate follows the story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla who has lived in captivity most of his life. Goodreads says, “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.”

I absolutely love that the entire story is told from Ivan’s point of view. He is a gorilla. It’s just not something you read much at all. I think Applegate does a beautiful job of getting us inside the head of a different species while making us feel connected to that narrator. The perspective that Ivan gives about life and about humans is especially fascinating. He is definitely not human. But he is relatable and easy to love. I easily found myself cheering for Ivan to find a way to give Ruby a better life and to find more purpose in his own.

The characters are clever and creative–yet simple and innocent. Ruby is my favorite. She is at the center of the story and yet she also seems most simple to me. She is a child who wants a home and a family. I love Stella for her mothering instinct and love despite all she has experienced. I even love Bob for his stubborn ways and secretly soft heart. Overall, Ivan is content or at least accepting of his life at the mall-circus. But Ruby helps him see the potential for more outside of his “home.” I love that Ivan can paint and seeks to express himself through his art. And that the humans don’t all understand what he is trying to create. There are multiple layers in these characters that make the story more complex for the readers.

The story is simple and easy for young readers to understand and get invested in. But it also evokes powerful themes that make it more than just a nice and simple children’s story. These themes add a lot of depth and character the novel–and help me see why it won the Newbery Medal. Applegate brings in themes like the importance of memory (how should we interact with the past?), the power of friendship (how can love and belonging overcome hardships and sadness?),  and the complexity of humans (are all humans the same? can we both do good and evil?). I found these and other themes thought provoking and intriguing. The potential book club discussions would be really fascinating here.

Another surprising element in this novel is the dark tone. The entire premise of the novel is a bit darker–a gorilla lives in rather poor conditions in a mall for most of his life. But there were moments of especially dark emotions like when Ivan begins to remember his life before the mall-circus or Ruby’s sadness at being away from my family. I was surprised that Applegate touched on such difficult emotions like loss, loneliness, and even depression. I often think such emotions are too intense for children. But I think they fit well in this story, and, perhaps, children can understand and appreciate such ideas more fully.

So many beautiful quotes in this novel–simple and profound. Here are a few favorites:

“Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot. Everyone knows the peels are the best part.”

“‘There’s a difference,’ Stella says gently, ‘between ‘can’t remember’ and ‘won’t remember . . . . Memories are precious . . . They help tell us who we are.”

“A good zoo is how humans make amends.”

“I’ve never asked for a promise before, because promises are forever, and forever is an unusually long time. Especially when you’re in a cage.”

The One and Only Ivan, pages 2, 53, 64, & 111

The ending is beautiful. I don’t want to give away the details. However, I will say that I love the way the story wraps up, the ending for each character, and the development at the end (it doesn’t wrap up too fast). Definitely a book I would recommend to readers of all ages. And also a book I would love to own one day.

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What are your favorite Newbery Honor books?

7 thoughts on “[The One and Only Ivan]: A Review

  1. Pingback: [The One and Only Bob]: A Review – greenish bookshelf

  2. Pingback: [Crenshaw]: A Review – greenish bookshelf

  3. I just picked up a copy of this book! My son had mentioned that he was interested in reading it, so when I came across one in a second hand store I grabbed it. I was planning on reading it for myself, so I am happy to see that you enjoyed it so much.

    Have you heard of the book Pax? I think you’d enjoy it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: May Wrap-Up and June TBR – greenish bookshelf

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