The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan. Katherine Applegate. 2012. HarperCollins. 301 pages.

I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It's not as easy as it looks.

 Want to read one of the best, best books of the year? May I suggest Katherine Applegate's verse novel, The One and Only Ivan. I can't promise that every reader will come to LOVE Ivan, Ruby, Stella, Bob, Julia, and George, but you might end up loving them just as much as I did. (Ivan is a gorilla; Ruby and Stella are elephants; Bob is a dog; George and Julia are two of the most sympathetic human characters in the novel.)

So what is it about? It's about a small group of animals on display at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Ivan, the gorilla, is an artist whose works sell in the gift shop. He's been captive almost thirty years. Stella is one of his dearest friends, she's an elephant who knows quite a few tricks. She's a great storyteller, but, many of her stories are bittersweet. She's had a hard life to have such a great memory. Bob, the stray dog, is Ivan's other best friend, he's not really on display--not wild enough, not talented enough--but to Ivan, well, he's the best dog in the world. One day, Mack, the owner, brings someone new: a baby elephant named Ruby. Her arrival changes EVERYTHING for Ivan. For at long last, he has someone to protect. 

Within pages, I was hooked. Here is the second poem:


People call me the Freeway Gorilla. The Ape at Exit 8. The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.

The names are mine, but they're not me. I am Ivan, just Ivan, only Ivan.

Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.

Everyone knows the peels are the best part.

I suppose you think gorillas can't understand you. Of course, you also probably think we can't walk upright.

Try knuckle walking for an hour. You tell me: Which way is more fun?

The narrative voice is so strong, so rich, so observant, so right. Here are just a few examples:
Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say. (3)
Anger is precious. A silverback uses anger to maintain order and warn his troop of danger. When my father beat his chest, it was to say, Beware, listen, I am in charge. I am angry to protect you, because that is what I was born to do. Here in my domain, there is no one to protect. (10)
It was Julia who gave me my first crayon, a stubby blue one, slipped through the broken spot in my glass along with a folded piece of paper. I knew what to do with it. I'd watched Julia draw. When I dragged the crayon across the paper, it left a trail in its wake like a slithering blue snake. (16)
Humans don't always seem to recognize what I've drawn. They squint, cock their heads, murmur. I'll draw a banana, a perfectly lovely banana, and they'll say, "It's a yellow airplane!" or "It's a duck without wings!" That's all right. I'm not drawing for them. I'm drawing for me. (17)
My visitors are often surprised when they see the TV Mack put in my domain. They seem to find it odd, the sight of a gorilla staring at tiny humans in a box. Sometimes I wonder, though: Isn't the way they stare at me, sitting in my tiny box, just as strange? (23)
Bob's tail makes me dizzy and confused. It has meanings within meanings, like human words. "I am sad," it says. "I am happy." It says, "Beware! I may be tiny, but my teeth are sharp." Gorillas don't have any use for tails. Our feelings are uncomplicated. Our rumps are unadorned. (35)
Homework, I have discovered, involves a sharp pencil and thick books and long sighs. (44)
But hunger, like food, comes in many shapes and colors. At night, lying alone in my Pooh pajamas, I felt hungry for the skilled touch of a grooming friend, for the cheerful grunts of a play fight, for the easy safety of my nearby troop, foraging through shadows. (133)
It's an odd story to remember, I have to admit. My story has a strange shape: a stunted beginning, an endless middle. (144)
The One and Only Ivan is definitely an EMOTIONAL read. It's a book about how humans treat or mistreat animals. It tells the story of several animals: Stella, Ivan, Ruby, etc. In some cases relating how they got to their current "domain" (cage, or prison). For the most sensitive reader, it may prove a little too much in a few poems. Overall, I think it's a great read. Powerful, compelling, beautifully written.

Read The One and Only Ivan
  • If you love E.B. White's Charlotte's Web
  • If you love Kathi Appelt's The Underneath
  • If you love animal stories
  • If you love gorillas, elephants, dogs
  • If you love GREAT writing
© 2012 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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