Book Review: THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN written by Katherine Applegate and Ill. by Patricia Castelao


Applegate, Katherine. 2012. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Ill. Patricia Castelao. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0061992254

The ONE AND ONLY IVAN is the bittersweet and beautiful middle-grade story of a gentle and artistic silverback gorilla named Ivan.  This book is a fictional narrative based on the true story of Ivan the gorilla at the Atlanta Zoo (Applegate 2013). The following picture of the real Ivan was taken from Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN website (

real ivan

At the story’s launch, Ivan inhabits his “domain” at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade with his friends Stella the elephant and Bob the dog.  The animals in this menagerie live a lonely and solitary existence.   The overall emotional theme of loneliness and isolation is even evident in the book’s title, THE “ONEAND “ONLYIVAN.  Ivan spends his days staring at his TV, gazing out the window, and painting pictures that are sold in the mall gift shop.  While Ivan loves to listen to stories from Stella’s past, he has blocked memories own painful early history.  The animals live a monotonous existence until the day that the baby elephant names Ruby comes into their world.  A powerful promise, protective “Mighty Silverback” instincts, and abuse/neglect at the hands of his owner force Ivan to admit that his “domain” is really a cage.  He vows to change their situation and save baby Ruby.   He finally becomes, not just THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, but the silverback gorilla he was always meant to be.

This 2013 Newberry Award winning book is told in free verse from Ivan’s point of view.  Ivan tells his story, “in short, image-rich sentences and acute, sometimes humorous, observations that are all the more heartbreaking for their simple delivery” (Kirkus Review 2012).  The use of potent imagery and descriptive language, coupled with sparse sentence structure, seem to mimic animalist or “gorilla-like” thoughts.  The School Library Journal declared, “His thoughts are vast and complex but restrained (by choice, to a certain extent, and by nature itself)” (Bird 2012).  This lends a sense of realism to the story and the protagonist.

Enrichment Activities:

Verse novels, such as the ONE AND ONLY IVAN, are growing in popularity with the middle-grade and young-adult crowd (Vardell 2008, 116).   They are “a promising trend and a fun format for dramatic read aloud” (Vardell 2008, 116).  Moreover, this book is perfect for opening a discussion on the Western Lowland Gorilla and endangered animal conservation with children.  While the real Ivan has sadly passed away, the Atlanta Zoo has placed his biography, a short film, and a slideshow of pictures on their website ( ). Various facts about the Western Lowland Gorillas can be found on the National Geographic Kids website ( The World Wildlife Foundation website has endangered gorilla information about how we can help save these powerful creatures from extinction (  A trip to a local zoo to view this majestic animal could also help children make real world connections to this poignant fictional story.

What to Read Next:

Hoare, Ban. 2008. EYEWITNESS: ENDANGERED ANIMALS. New York: DK Publishing. ISBN 978-0756668839

Nichols, Michael & Elizabeth Carney. 2009. FACE TO FACE WITH GORILLAS. Des Moines, IA: National Geographic Children’s Books. ISBN 978-1426304064

Hartnett, Sonya.  2011. THE MIDNIGHT ZOO.  Ill. Andrea Offermann. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 978-0763653392

Book Trailer:


Applegate, Katherine. “The Real Ivan.” THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. 2013. (accessed February 19, 2014).

Bird, Elizabeth. “Review of the Day: THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate.” School Library Journal. March 17, 2012. (accessed Febuary 18, 2014).

Kirkus Review. “THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN .” January 17, 2012. (accessed Feburary 18, 2014).

Vardell, Sylvia M. CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN ACTION: A LIBRARIAN’S GUIDE. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

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