The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Genres: Middle-Grade, Novel in Verse
Maturity Level: 3+
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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.
This might be the most upsetting book I have ever read. If animal cruelty is a big deal to you, this book is no walk in the park. I was sobbing in the first twenty pages, and that’s before the baby orphaned elephant was even introduced. But the ending was so triumphant, so wonderful, I sobbed my eyes out some more.
Guys, what an AMAZING book.
I know basically nothing about poetry, and I admit that I don’t really understand how this book is considered verse. Like, the first couple pages I was getting a poetry vibe, but the rest of it may as well have been prose as far as I was concerned. Like, gorgeous prose. But I didn’t really get poetry from it. But like I said, poetry is not my thing.
What I really liked about this book was how it took a seemingly powerless character, a gorilla in a cage, and gave him agency in his own story. I feel like the story of Ivan taking his life into his own hands and becoming the gorilla he wants to be will really resonate with children. I also liked how Ivan has an odd blend of confidence and insecurity. I think middle-grade readers will really relate to that.
I’m not sure that the power of the message really resonates completely with kids, though. My students all love this book, but the mostly seem confused why their teacher cried when she read it to them. I’m not sure the cruelty of the situation the animals find themselves in really register all the way with them. But that right there is why books like this one are so important. If Ivan raises even a LITTLE awareness of the cruelty that animals suffer at the hands of humans, if even one little kid learns that dogs are forever pets, then Applegate has made the world a better place.
I loved Ivan as a character. He is sweet and strong. He is exactly what you would expect from a gorilla, except that he’s also an artist. He has trauma in his past, and he grows from it. I love his sense of humor and his charm. I love how loyal he is to his friends.
I loved the supporting characters too. This book has a great cast. I really appreciated how Applegate painted the owner of the mall in shades of grey. He loved Ivan. He wasn’t trying to be cruel, he was just trying to make his way in the world. It doesn’t make any of the things he did okay, but it makes it so that he doesn’t come off as evil.
The writing is gorgeous. Sights, sounds, smells, feelings flew off the page. I felt as if I was there, with Ivan. But at the same time, everything was more vivid than I see the world. This would make a great novel study for a class, because there is so much to learn from and notice, especially figurative and sensory language. Gah. Gorgeous.
This is one of the most bittersweet books I’ve ever read. Due to the poetic nature of the book it would work very well for read aloud. I can’t recommend it highly enough for kids and adults.