Monday 29 August 2016

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, reviewed by Sarah Hammond

The One and Only Ivan tells the story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla, who was taken from the wild as an infant to live in captivity in America. It is an intelligent, poignant middle grade fantasy told from Ivan's perspective. The story is heartbreaking and heartwarming by turns.  

When we first meet him, Ivan has been living in a cage in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for the last 27 years. He does not seem to remember or miss his life in the jungle. He only has a few friends around him: Stella the elephant-next-door who performs tricks for the crowds; and Bob, a stray dog who sneaks in to see Ivan at night and to sleep on his belly. Ivan occupies his days with his TV and his ‘artwork’, which is sold at the mall gift shop.

One day, to address the falling popularity of the animals and low visitor numbers, a newcomer is brought to the mall: a baby elephant called Ruby. Memories of home are very raw for this little elephant, and Ruby has not yet acclimatised to the human world. In helping her, and in addressing the changes that she brings, Ivan finds himself reassessing his own captivity, too. 

The story is told by Ivan using deceptively simple words and short chapters. As he says, "Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot." Long after reading this book, many sentences and images — poignant and poetic in their understatement — stay with me still. We learn that Ivan is patient and thoughtful and resilient and resourceful. Slowly, we discover his harrowing past. A reader warning is due here: it would be difficult to finish this book with a dry eye, and many questions are raised about the treatment of animals in captivity. 

However, the overall message of the book is not downbeat. A strong thread of humanity and tenderness runs through the story. Although Ivan's worldview anchors the book, many other characters contribute to this growing sense of kindness: Stella, the stoic and maternal elephant; the not-as-tough-as-he-seems dog, Bob; sensitive and intuitive Julia who understands Ivan's paintings; lively, questioning, and loving baby Ruby; and George, the caring caretaker of the mall. As Ivan seeks to protect and rescue Ruby from her difficult new environment, he strengthens enough to confront his own buried memories and to rescue his own identity as a silverback in all its glory. 

The author was inspired to write The One and Only Ivan by the story of a real gorilla of the same name who was captured from (what is now) the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an infant, and who lived in a domestic home in America until he became unmanageable. Then he, too, lived alone in a cage for almost three decades without seeing another gorilla in a circus-themed mall in Washington state. Eventually, as attitudes towards animal welfare and understanding of primate needs developed, his plight was given publicity by a feature in the National Geographic, called 'The Urban Gorilla'. This article triggered a public outcry and Ivan eventually found a home in Zoo Atlanta in 1994. There, he became a celebrity, living with the largest group of captive western lowland gorillas in the US. This Ivan was also renowned for his paintings. He died when he was 50 years old. 

Katherine Applegate won the 2013 Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan. She has written many books including the Roscoe Riley Rules chapter book series and the picture book The Buffalo Storm. Her novel Home of the Brave was a School Library Best Book of the Year and won both the Golden Kite Award and the Josette Frank Award for best children's fiction. She wrote the bestselling series Animorphs with her husband, Michael Grant. She lives in Northern California with her husband and their two children.You can find out more about her on her website:


Sarah Hammond is a writer for young people. She has published a picture book, Mine! (Parragon), and a teen novel, The Night Sky in my Head (OUP), which was short-listed for four awards in the UK. She is a Brit abroad, now living happily in Chicago, with strong ties to the UK which regularly pull her back across the Pond. 

You can find her online at: 

Facebook: SarahHammondAuthorPage
Twitter: @SarahHammond9 


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