The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate


Based, in part, on the true story of a gorilla captured in the now Democratic Republic of the Congo, Katherine Applegate introduces us to the fictitious and unforgettable character of a gorilla named Ivan.  Forced to live in the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, Ivan quickly learns to forget the previous life he lived and family he had in the African jungle.  In fact, he finds that forgetting this past life is an essential part of adjusting to the solitary, lonely life he now lives.  However, in his new daily reality, Ivan grows to love many things.  A small list includes western TV shows, a stray dog named Bob, an ex-circus elephant named Stella, finger painting, and a baby elephant named Ruby.  Tragedy strikes, though, when Ivan’s best elephant friend, Stella, falls ill and dies at the hands of neglectful humans. Ivan promises her that he will take care of her newly adopted baby elephant Ruby and provide her with a better life than the mall and video arcade environment can.  After making this promise, Ivan realizes how far-fetched it is but nonetheless, decides to give it a shot.  With an ending that involves finger painting, a persistent and empathetic young girl named Julia, and a father who is willing to risk it all to do what is right, Ivan is able to make good on his promise.  Too many plot details abound to sum up this book in one short paragraph, but it is a must-read!

Applegate’s masterfully uses the poetic elements of rhythm, language, imagery, and emotion in this verse novel.   Short lines are saved for dramatic statements or quotes, creating a staccato rhythm while longer lines and paragraphs are used to create plot flow.  Chapters vary greatly in length according to the emotion being expressed.  Additionally, the language is carefully selected using sensory words that serve to form mental pictures in the reader’s mind.  For example, on page 266, Ivan realizes that a change is coming by stating, “I don’t know what it is, but I taste it in the air, like far-off rain clouds gathering.”

This verse novel’s greatest strength may lie in Applegate’s ability to allow readers to go on an adventure with Ivan, experiencing each and every emotion he does.  In the beginning, readers will be heartbroken as Ivan is, but in the end every heart will be mended when Ivan finds his inner strength and triumphs over adversity.  Along the way, readers will cry, sigh, gasp, smile, and maybe even laugh as the raw emotions are portrayed. In February, 2012, Booklist wrote, “The text, written in first person from Ivan’s point of view, does a good job of vividly conveying his personality, emotions, and intelligence as well as creating a sense of otherness in his point of view.”

The text in Applegate’s verse novel can easily stand alone as an incredibly well written work of poetry, but illustrations are added throughout the story that help readers visualize some of the most critical plot points.  Overall, the illustrations add a nice touch and do not complicate the text. For example, on page sixty-nine as readers are introduced to the new character, Stella, a picture of her appears on the page.  She is seen with a look of apprehension as she slowly inches her way out of the big white truck in which she arrived.  In January, 2012, School Library Journal wrote “Castelao’s delightful illustrations enhance this lovely story.”

The Harper Collins Children’s webpage offers a great deal of extension activities for teachers and librarians to use with readers of The One and Only Ivan.  One idea provided is to introduce students to the story of the real Ivan, Katherine Applegate’s inspiration in writing this book.  After this, students could then do research on how to plan a campaign to save an animal in similar circumstances to Ivan.  It would be important to ask children questions like, “How would you raise awareness of the animal’s plight?” and “Who would you enlist to help you? (Harper Collins 2013)” This idea would fit well into a book club or literacy event hosted in a public library.

The One and Only Ivan has won a host of awards including the Flicker Tale Children’s Book Award in 2012, the School Library Journal Best Books of the Year in 2012, the Newbery Medal in 2013, the American Library Association Notable Books for Children in 2013, the California Book Awards in 2012, and the Christopher Book Awards in 2013. Additionally, the book has also been nominated for the Great Stone Face Children’s Book Award in 2012, the Great Lakes Great Books Award in 2013, and Bluebonnet Award in 2013.  This week, The One and Only Ivan is number nine on the New Times Best Sellers List under the category “Children’s Middle Grade.”  Since its release on January 17th, 2013, it is has spent thirty-four weeks on the top ten best sellers list in this category (New York Times 2013).


Books in Print. Texas Woman’s University. (Accessed September 27, 2013.)

The New York Times. 2013. “Best Sellers.” (Accessed September 27, 2013).

Harper Collins Children’s. 2013. “The One and Only Ivan.” /HCChildrens             /OMM/Media/One%20and%20Only%20Ivan%20UPDATED%20TG.pdf (Accessed September 27, 2013).

Applegate, Katherine. 2013. The One and Only Ivan. Ill. Patricia Castelao. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0061992254


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