The One and Only Ivan: YA Book Review

Back when I was attending Syracuse University as an undergraduate, an international circus visited the city.  My husband (then boyfriend) and I decided to go see the circus performance.  Right before intermission, a bear came out riding a bicycle.  I was so upset seeing this animal dressed up and made to ride a bicycle with a trainer holding a stick behind the bear, I made us leave during the intermission promising never to see a circus with animal acts again.  I don’t consider myself a big animal rights activist but I was bothered by animals performing for human entertainment.

Fast forward to this past weekend.  At the library Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (2012) was sitting on the book shelf ready to be checked out with the gold Newbery Medal glistening on the cover and I was inclined to take the book home.  I didn’t even read the inside book jacket. Yet, as soon as I started reading I couldn’t put the book down until I got to the end.  The book is an inspiring and thought provoking story that I will use in my classroom this year.


The One and Only Ivan is told from the perspective of a thirty year old silverback gorilla who lives at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  Ivan and his sister were taken as baby gorillas from their parents in the African Congo and then sold to the mall owner.  Unfortunately, Ivan’s sister did not survive the journey. Mack, the mall’s owner, raised Ivan as if he were a human infant for the first three years before Ivan became too big.  For the past twenty seven years Ivan has been an attraction at the Big Top Mall along with an elephant and other animals.  Living behind a glass enclosed cage, or what Ivan calls his “domain,” he reflects on his life, his family, and human behavior. Ivan is “patient as a stone” and has learned a lot about humans and human behavior.  As Ivan states, “Gorillas are not complainers. We’re dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.” Ivan is also an artist and makes a promise to get away from the mall to a better place, like a zoo, where he and the other animals can live a better life.

The story is engaging and the writing, elegant.  Right in the beginning I was captivated when I read sentences that read like poetry, heavy with imagery:  “Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.” The descriptions of humans leave imprints on your brain “Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.”

Julie, the daughter of the mall’s nighttime cleaner realizes that Ivan does not belong in the glass prison housed at a mall. She sets in motion a series of events that help Ivan and the other animals get to a better place.

While reading the book I felt sorry for Ivan and the other animals, it does make a strong statement about the treatment of animals.  At the same time,  while reading I was cheering Ivan on, laughing, and excited when he finally found a new home.

The most intriguing part of this story is that it is based on an actual gorilla named Ivan who lived for twenty seven years at a mall in Washington until animal rights activists got involved and helped Ivan get moved to the Atlanta Zoo.

In 1993, The New York Times published an article about the real Ivan and his future after being kept at a mall.

Here are other text pairing for The One and Only Ivan:

Me . . . Jane (2011) by Patrick McDonnell is a picture book about a young Jane Goodall who dreams of “a life living with and helping all animals.”

Lucy – Radiolab (on NPR) did a story in 2010 about a female gorilla, Lucy, who was raised by humans (similar to Ivan). It is an interesting story with a very different ending.


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