Category: Literature
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Applegate, Katherine. The One and Only Ivan. Illustrated by Patricia Castelao. Harper Collins, 2012. 320 pages. Tr. $16.99, 978-0-06-199225-4; EPub Ed. $9.99, 978-0-06-210198-3.

“I know what most humans think. They think gorillas don’t have imaginations. They think we don’t remember our pasts or ponder our futures” (Applegate, 2012, p. 22). These words appear in the book The One and Only Ivan, reminding the readers of their very often discriminative attitude towards animals. The creator of this lifelike fiction story is Katherine Applegate, who is also the author of numerous children’s books, including The Buffalo Storm and Home of the Brave, these books won the Golden Kite Award and the Josette Frank Award. The book The One and Only Ivan became “the winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal and the #1 New York Times bestseller” (“HarperCollins Publishers,” n.d.). This is a fiction book inspired by a true story of a silverback gorilla who was captured and lived in a small “domain” for 27 years.

The story is being narrated by the gorilla Ivan himself, who recounts some of his best friends, a resident stray dog, Bob, and an old elephant named Stella. Ivan feels quite comfortable in the “domain” where he lives, which Stella often calls “cage.” He likes to draw and watch the TV and cannot even imagine the life outside of the domain. Once, a baby elephant Ruby arrives in their “Big Top Mall,” and Stella asks Ivan to take care of her. The old elephant dies, and Ivan tries to revive the old memories of his own family when he was forced to face a cruel murder of his parents. Suddenly, he realizes that Ruby deserves to live a better life than he does. Thus, Ivan invents an adventurous plan, and his friend Bob, along with a little girl Julia and her father George, try to help him. Through his paintings, Ivan wants to evoke some response from people, and he succeeds in doing so. Ivan’s promise is fulfilled, and Ruby obtains a true family and happiness. Simultaneously, Ivan learns what it means to be a real gorilla.

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The book is written in an easy manner and in a blog-like style. From the very beginning, the readers feel as if they read someone’s personal diary: “I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It’s not as easy as it looks” (Applegate, 2012, p. 10). All the sentences are short and concise, creating a feeling of “prose poems” (Hunt, 2012). First-person narration occurs in a chronological order; however, some flashbacks to Ivan’s childhood help to better comprehend the plot. Although the plot is clear, the author adds some images to emphasize it. Black-and-white, or even gray illustrations involve “thinking in, and communicating through, both pictures and words” (Salisbury & Styles, 2012). Although the book has very few illustrations, they successfully perform their main function – to attract children. Young readers of the age of eight years old and to twelve years old would surely like the drawings, which make the plot brighter and catchier.

The main theme of the book is friendship. At the same time, the reader may also distinguish such important themes as man vs. nature, freedom and identity, justice, animal rights, art, and home. Applegate (2012) developed these themes through successful manipulations with plot, structure, characters, setting, point of view, and style (Horning, 2010, p. 163). After reading the book, middle grade readers would be happy to discover its “significant truth” and comprehend the importance of these themes in the real life (Horning, 2010). The narrator’s point of view is especially essential, since it helps the readers to sense the animals’ feelings from within. Although the story is a fiction because it is obvious that animals cannot talk, it is still unusual for such a genre, since the characters of this book do not talk to human beings. On the contrary, they communicate with each other, often admitting that “humans speak too much” or often waste their words (Applegate, 2012, p. 12). Through gorilla’s words and thoughts, one can look at human beings from a different perspective and evaluate their behavior and attitude towards animals around them.

The main audience of the book is middle grade students and young adults. However, the readers of older age would also penetrate the story of Ivan and feel compassion for him. In this honest and humble story, Applegate continues the tradition of “timeless stories like Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little” (“HarperCollins Publishers,” n.d.). All the primary characters are fully realized, while some secondary characters are somewhat stereotypical (for example, Mack, who is both a bad man and a sad clown with a kind heart). Almost every book has an antagonist, and some antagonists tend to change in the end, as Mack does. The image of the girl Julie is also stereotypical, and one may notice some similar images in the above-mentioned Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, in which children also wanted to protect animals from the adults. Nevertheless, stereotypical characters do not affect the perception of the book. On the contrary, these characters make it familiar to most of the readers, which is important in children’s literature.

Our Process

The setting is another critical part of the story, since it symbolizes imprisonment. All of the actions take place in the mall, and the animals are captured in domains made of glass, metal, and cement. It is obvious that such a place cannot be suitable for living. Moreover, the main conflict arouses at the moment when Ruby is abused, and it is the turning point for Ivan. He realizes that this place is not as calm and as kind as he always thought it was. Fortunately, at the end of the book, the setting changes, and the animals are being relocated to the zoo – another place for captured creatures, which is considered to be kinder and gentler. Applegate (2012) emphasizes on the fact that it is always difficult for those animals who used to live in capture to adjust to a wild life; that is why, the zoo becomes the best solution for them. At the same time, a significant social issue arouses, which is: in the modern world, wild animals feel safer in the zoos than in jungles where people hunt for them and kill them. 

The book received only positive feedbacks and receptions. For example, Kirkus Reviews (2011) state, “Utterly believable, this bittersweet story, complete with an author’s note identifying the real Ivan, will inspire a new generation of advocates.” These words stimulate the audience to buy the book and read it from the very beginning to the end. In addition, the following words, which appeared in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, illustrate its main essence in just one sentence: “Castelao’s intermittent, slightly stylized illustrations, in smudgy, charcoal-like tones of gray, complement the evocative yet spare storytelling” (Hulick, 2012, p. 294). It is difficult to deny that Applegate’s book is a real success in children’s literature. The book contributes not only to children’s development, but also to general social issues. The story makes the readers think of the current situation on the planet, where cruel treatment of animals became just a usual thing.

After reviewing this book, some main aspects of the fiction novels became clearer. Thus, every fantasy fiction novel should contain something unreal in its plot. In Applegate’s novel, this unreal element is the speaking animals. However, unlike some other stories of this genre, these animals do not speak to people, which is the main obstacle on the way to salvation. However, Applegate solves this problem, adding the element of art to the book. Ivan is a special gorilla, who is fond of painting, and his talent helps him to achieve his goal. The most significant moment is the theme of the story. As in most of children’s books, good triumphs evil, and happy end is guaranteed. The One and Only Ivan is a must-read for everyone who is above eight years old, and who wants to receive the most important from the reading – outburst of deep emotions and the feeling of completeness.

Reading and Note Taking

The first thing that caught my attention was the following phrase: “I have been in my domain for nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days” (Applegate, 2012, p. 25). I think the author intended to confer a distinction on the gorilla, in comparison with human beings. People do not count their lives in days, while for gorilla, years bring less information.

While reading further, I have found a number of symbols, which are significant for the modern society. One of such symbols is television. Ivan was allowed to watch television, which is unnatural for wild animals. Thus, the TV-set emphasizes the fact that the world became too artificial, and people often forget about such natural things as animals, trees, flowers, and etc. They tend to believe that animals are their toys or their ways to entertain, which is the hugest mistake. Therefore, the author tries to point to this mistake and make the readers change their views.

Another powerful symbol is language and words. The gorilla cannot speak, which is why it is difficult for him to gain freedom. It means that words symbolize freedom, along with human’s inability to use this freedom without wasting it. At the same time, although Ivan cannot speak, he can think, and his thinking process demonstrates his talent. Ivan uses many similes and metaphors in his considerations, which associate him with a captured poet who is not allowed to express his opinion. For example, he says, “Stella is a mountain. Next to her I am a rock, and Bob is a grain of sand” (p. 26). It is amazing how the gorilla can compare himself to a rock. Consequently, the readers begin to see him as a real creature, who can think and feel and deserves to have a better life.

Applegate (2012) used several allusions in her book. For example, Ivan identifies himself with the “Primate Picasso,” or Julia’s father calls him “Rembrandt” (pp. 141; 132). I doubt whether children of eight or nine years old find these names familiar; however, probably, older children will evaluate these allusions.

The element of puzzle, which appears in the chapter “Puzzle Pieces,” will be interesting for children. Here, the characters play with the letters, helping Julia and her father to put down the word. “H, E, O, I. […]. I, E, O, H” – these letters do not compile a word. However, Julia solves this puzzle and discovers the word “H-O-M-E” (p. 133). This chapter is captivating and somewhat culminating because it predicts the book’s happy end.

I have noticed one typo in the chapter “A New Beginning” – the name “Mac” was written without “k” in the end (p. 97). However, since the edition of the book is electronic, I thought it might be a technical shortcoming. I did not notice any other typos.

Another citation that grabbed my attention is the following: “Patient is a useful way to be when you’re an ape” (p. 12). I associate these words with the rights of animals. Since ancient times, animals had no rights and were supposed to serve human beings or become their food. Fortunately, today this tradition is going to change, and animals should not be patient and silent anymore. The animal rights movements come to my mind, and I want to believe that Applegate’s book will at least slightly change the cruel attitude towards animals.

Finally, I want to add that the book made an indelible impression on me. The understanding of the fact that animals may be compassionate and feel happiness and sadness inspired me to act. I believe that those children and adults who read the book will penetrate into the lives of the primary characters, wishing to contribute to the animals’ salvation.

Thematic Annotated Bibliography

The chosen theme is friendship and devotion.

A fictional picture book:

White, E. B. (2012). Charlotte’s web. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

The book narrates about a friendship between a little girl and a pig Wilbur, as well as Wilbur and a spider, Charlotte, who are ready to protect each other and fight for each other in any situation. The book can be related to The One and Only Ivan, since it is focused on the animals’ lives in a shed, which means that they are also captured, and people use them for their own purposes. One of the primary characters, Charlotte, tries to save her friend Wilbur by spinning words on her web, in the same manner as Ivan draws the words on the paper sheets. I have chosen this book because the themes of friendship and devotion are demonstrated in both books.

An informational book:

Michael, C. (2013). My pet kitten: A fun informative guide for kids & parents to read before getting a first pet [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from

The book provides information on how to choose a cat and become friends with him. The book may be related to Applegate’s, since it is focused on the theme of friendship between human beings and animals. Moreover, it shows that some animals, like cats, may comfortably live in capture, although they also like freedom. I have chosen this book because it can be read by middle graders and their parents, and children can learn how to treat animals in a friendly way.

Graphic novel:

Collodi, C. (2009). Pinocchio. New Delhi: Om Books International.

This graphic novel is a story of a wooden boy puppet who learns to live among people and make the right choices. This graphic novel relates to The One and Only Ivan because one of its themes is friendship. Pinocchio is not an animal but a puppet, who can feel and think like Ivan. One of his adventures in the book is to save his friends from Fire Eater, who captures them in a larder to perform in his theatre. I have chosen this novel because it reminded me of Ivan and his friends.

Academic article:

Burke, C. L, & Copenhaver, J. G. (2004). Animals as people in children’s literature. Language Arts, 81(3), 205-213.

This article is mainly focused on the depiction of animals in children’s literature. The article is written by a professor of education and a lecturer, who wants to show how animals in children’s book can influence child’s development. The article relates to Applegate’s novel because it examines and analyzes the images of animals as thinking creatures in literature. Moreover, it reveals the themes of friendship between animals and people, which is why I have chosen this article.

Middle Grade novel:

Stead, R. (2010). When you reach me. New York, NY: A Yearling Book.

This children’s novel is about friendship, personal struggle, and interactions of a sixth-grade Miranda. The book relates to The One and Only Ivan, since it also contains some puzzle within it. The main character of the book needs to solve this puzzle to help her friends and relatives, as well as Julia needs to help Ivan. I have chosen this book because it provides a fresh look on friendship between people without involving animals.

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