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The Truly Amazing The One and Only Ivan

Posted by Rebecca L. on Feb 12, 2014

I just finished this year's Newbery Medal winner and it is exquisite. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate is the tale of a gorilla living in a circus themed mall. The story is told from Ivan the gorilla's perspective. He is a gentle being, but finds it troubling to think beyond his simple world. His one true love is his art that lets him forget about the terrible past that brought him to the mall. 

Ruby, the baby elephant, soon appears in his life and he can no longer pretend that their world is anything less than a painful, uncaring solitude and it is time to do something about it. Ivan discovers a way to change their lives with a little help from Bob the dog and Julia the human girl. Beneath Ivan's story is a powerful commentary on how humans treat animals as disposable objects, but also how one voice or kind act can make a huge difference in the lives of animals and humans alike.

The chapters are very short and quite poetic. Ivan speaks with efficiency, but not without color. In his opinion, "Humans waste words." Each character is lovingly thought out and it broke my heart each and every time they met hardship. This book is absolutely satisfying from beginning to end.

I would place the reading level at grades 4-6, but younger strong readers, and older animal lovers (including grown-ups!) will love Ivan as well. There are some very upsetting moments that deal with death and cruelty to animals. There are passages about the hunting of gorillas that may be too much for younger children. Graceful illustrations by Patricia Castelao are scattered throughout the book. I highly recommend The One and Only Ivan as a book for the family to read together.


The One and Only Ivan was based on the true story of Ivan the gorilla who lived in a mall in Tacoma, Washington for 27 years without seeing another of his species. After being featured in the National Geographic special "The Urban Gorilla", public outcry helped move Ivan to a better home at the Zoo Atlanta in Georgia. The real Ivan died at the age of 50 in 2012. To learn more about Ivan, check out Katherine Applegate's webpage and the Zoo Atlanta's page:

To learn more about wild mountain gorillas and conservation efforts for them, check out National Geographic's page:

Katherine Applegate has been an extraordinarily popular children's author for many years, best known for the Animorphs and Everworld series written with her husband, Michael Grant, and the Making Out teen romance series. She has worked on over 100 children's books, sometimes under pen names which has made it hard for me to figure an exact count! Her novel Home of the Brave was awarded the 2008 Golden Kite Award for Best Fiction, the Bank Street 2008 Josette Frank Award for children's fiction, and was a Judy Lopez Memorial Award honor book. I believe Ivan is her absolute masterpiece, it will bring her a wider, well-deserved recognition and be read and loved for many years to come.