‘The One and Only Ivan’ by Katherine Applegate

one and only

Rating: 5 stars

“The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate is a book that almost defies definition. It’s a book that should earn six stars on the five star rating system, but only five stars are allowed.

It’s not quite a children’s book, but it’s not an adult book either. Rather, it’s a book for everyone, and it’s a tribute to animals everywhere who exist in small cages with substandard care due to ignorance, greed and apathy.

Applegate based this story on a real gorilla who lived for twenty-seven years in a cage in a shopping mall. Eventually, after much public protest, he was able to live in Zoo Atlanta.

The Ivan in the book is a wonderful protagonist and a wonderful narrator. Full of self-deprecating humor and with a biting wit, he tells his story with beauty and with feeling. Ivan is an artist and he tells his story with an artist’s voice. He doesn’t just relate his story, he colors it beautifully and shades it with vibrant emotion.

The book will bring tears to almost every reader’s eye — I defy anyone with a heart to not be touched by Ivan’s plight and that of his fellow inmates in the shopping mall where they are incarcerated.

But as with all great stories, beauty can be found in the basest of places and Ivan’s shopping mall is no different. All the inhabitants are victims of man’s cruelty.

Ivan’s family was killed when he and his twin sister were captured as babies. His sister died en route from Africa. Ruby, the baby elephant, saw her family killed in front of her when she was captured. And even Bob, the stray dog who completes their family, was one of a litter of puppies thrown from a car onto a road. Bob luckily rolled into a ditch; the others did not.

Yet in spite of the horrors and cruelty of their situation, the animals find comfort in each other. Ruby tells the story of the time when humans saved her from drowning in a well. When the others express their incredulity that humans would help an animal, Stella, the tired, lame elephant says, with typical understatement, “Humans can surprise you sometimes.”

The characters in the story become so real that when the book is over, it feels like a friendship is ending. The animals are so appealing, I want to keep talking to them. What’s Bob up to these days, anyway?

Applegate’s writing could be used as a model when teaching descriptive writing. For example, instead of writing, “I saw colors — a red flower over there and a black bird flying by,” she pens, “I grabbed at colors — the crimson flower just out of reach, the ebony bird streaking past.”

This book would be a wonderful choice for fifth-grade and older and even through high school. It could open up wonderful discussions about writing style, imagery, voice, inference, and global issues (for the older students) such as animal rights, poaching of wild animals, zoos, and treatment of animals.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever loved an animal. And those who haven’t.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s edition provided by the publisher, HarperCollins, for review purposes.