Our Town Books Reviews: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan

This book review originally appeared in the Jacksonville newspaper, The Source.

The One and Only Ivan
By Katherine Applegate
305 pages. Harper. Ages 8 to 12. $16.99.

I didn’t expect to like The One and Only Ivan even though I knew it had won 20 awards for children’s literature including the prestigious Newbery Medal, even though a good friend who is also a school librarian strongly recommended it, and even though it’s based on a true story.

I just didn’t think I’d like it.

You might say that when it came to Ivan I was a reluctant reader.

Somehow I didn’t think I’d like a fictional memoir written by a gorilla–even an easy-going, lowland, silverback gorilla. I mean, how many gorillas do you know who can build and maintain a compelling narrative? Up until now I couldn’t name a single one. But now there’s Ivan. By page 8, I was thoroughly in love with this gorilla’s writing style and with the ape himself.

Ivan not only tells a good story, he tells it well. And he’s a master of the one-liner. On the very first page, he explains:

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

He’s right. In his case, being a gorilla isn’t easy at all. Ivan has lived for 27 years in a cage made of thick glass and rusty metal. It’s in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Ivan’s long been used to people staring at him. He’s used to kids banging on the glass and he says he hardly ever thinks about his life in the jungle anymore.

Sometimes he watches westerns on the old TV in his cage and visits with his friends, Stella the elephant and Bob the dog. But mostly he thinks about his art. His paintings are sold in a shop in the mall (“where humans forage”) for twenty dollars apiece—twenty-five with a frame.

But one day a frightened baby elephant, Ruby, is brought to the mall where she is made to perform. Ivan begins to see life in captivity in a new light and resolves to save Ruby from it.

Who knew that a story told in first-person gorilla could be about bravery, hope, and the life-saving possibilities of art? Give this book to a child, read it aloud together, or read it to yourself. Just don’t be a reluctant reader when it comes to The One and Only Ivan. He’s good.

Reviewed by Sally Nurss

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