The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Applegate, Katherine. 2012. The One and Only Ivan. Ill. by Patricia Castelao. New York: Harper. ISBN 9780061992254.

The One and Only Ivan begins simply, and carries that straightforward attitude throughout the verse novel.  “I am Ivan. I am a gorilla.” (p. 1)  Ivan calmly describes his world at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall.  He eats, he draws, he occasionally throws “me-balls,” which the small glossary helpfully defines as “dried excrement thrown at observers,” and he talks to Stella the elephant and Bob the dog.  He is content in this life.  Then, it all changes.  What Ivan knows, that the Exit 8 has been losing money, suddenly changes his world in a surprising way.  Mack, the owner of the circus mall, buys a baby elephant to attempt to give new life to the dying attraction.  While Ruby does bring more visitors to the mall, she also makes Ivan reconsider his life.  When he promises a dying Stella that he will take care of Ruby, Ivan realizes that he will have to find some way to get Ruby out of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall.

Ivan is a wonderful animal story, but unlike traditional animal stories, such as Hank the Cowdog or even Black Beauty, Ivan infuses maximum emotion into minimum words.  Yes, there are three hundred pages of Ivan’s story, but some pages only have a dozen words.  The poetry sinks the reader into Ivan’s skin.  We can feel his frustration with the humans who don’t understand him.  We rejoice when Julia, the daughter of the maintenance man at the mall, deciphers Ivan’s drawings, whether they are bananas or zoos.  Then, rather suddenly, Ivan speaks of being raised like a human child by Mack.  Suddenly, it makes sense that Ivan does not always consider himself a good silverback.

Applegate uses simple words.  She uses the words that a gorilla might pick up if he lived the majority of his life around humans without truly understanding the complexity of the English language.  Yet at the same time, Ivan uses words that clearly show he is a member of the animal kingdom.  He sees his cage as his domain.  For much of the book, he refuses to call it a cage.  It is his domain up until he realizes that he does not want Ruby to grow up alone and far from other elephants.  Suddenly his domain is a cage.  It prevents him from caring for Ruby like he wants to.  He is no longer in charge of his world, and so what he could comfortably call a domain, almost a home, was suddenly holding him back from finding a home.

Despite the fact that it is broken up like a poem, in many ways Ivan is almost a poem in disguise.  I don’t know that if I had simply picked it up I would have gone, “This is a poem.”  This to me is an advantage.  Instead of forcing children to rhyme, it shows them that free verse is a wonderful, and perfectly acceptable, form of poetry.  It would not be hard to invite kids to write their own poem from the point of view of an animal, possibly their own.

Kirkus Review- “How Ivan confronts his harrowing past yet stays true to his nature exemplifies everything youngsters need to know about courage.”

School Library Journal- “Applegate makes a powerful statement about the treatment of animals–especially those living in captivity–and reminds readers that all creatures deserve a safe place to call home.”


2013 Newbery Award Winner

2013 Bluebonnet Award List

“The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.” Kirkus Reviews Issue:Oct. 15th, 2011. Review Posted Online:Sept. 28th, 2011.

Karr, MaryAnn. “Pick of the Day: The One and Only Ivan.” Posted June 11, 2013.

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