The One and Only Ivan

Author: Katherine Applegate

Artist: Patricia Castelao

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2012

I read it: August 2015


As a youth I fell hard for K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I have a distinct memory of biking one of the books to my friend Adam’s house so that he could keep up with the story as well. While I haven’t gone back to flip through any of those, I remember them being fun and interesting and serious and thoughtful and a bit scary. Those books were a big part of my reading foundation.

I knew I had to snag this attractive tale by Ms. Applegate. Based on a true story, it’s about a gorilla who has lived in a cage in a dinky mall for 27 years. It’s touching and straightforward, with the requisite highs and lows. On some levels it’s like a parallel to Room, staying just this side of bleakness by focusing on the kindness of its main character, Ivan, and the other animals that live near him.

Each chapter reads like a self-contained poem, propelling the story forward while offering mini meditations on existence. There is a lot of rumination about humans and what the gorilla thinks of them:

My family tree spreads wide as well. I am a great ape, and you are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins.

Captured at a young age and raised as a sort-of human child, Ivan worries that he is still “too much gorilla and not enough human” to have a proper home in captivity. He knows he has to figure out a way to change the course of his life, so he picks up tidbits of information about the outside world. He learns from Stella, an elephant, that “a good zoo is how humans make amends.” I particularly loved this insightful take on how humans and animals interact in today’s world.

Art is another big theme. Ivan learns painting from a girl, Julia, whose dad works as a custodian at the mall. The book itself is interspersed with fitting illustrations by Patricia Castelao. It’s a product pleasing in form, pace, and visuals, and another prime example of one that transcends readership age. At the back of the book is Applegate’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech, in which she quotes Madeline L’Engle:

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.

This book wanted to be written. All those years the author spent inside the heads of the Animorphs has paid off in poetry.


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