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2013 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
The One and Only Ivan

(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of critical importance.)

If you look up author Katherine Applegate in the Library of Congress catalog, you will find well over 150 books to her credit, including the Animorph, Remnant, and Everworld books attributed to K. A. Applegate. In January of 2103 Katherine (K. A.) Applegate joined an elite group of authors when her book The One and Only Ivan was named the winner of the ALA's 2013 Newbery Award1 for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The publisher, HarperCollins, identifies the target readers of this award winner as eight- to twelve-year-olds.

The One and Only Ivan is a first person narrative told by Ivan, a gorilla, who lives alone in a glass-walled domain in the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade off Exit 8. The “freeway gorilla” has no family to protect, which is the normal responsibility of a silverback gorilla, and so instead Ivan draws his pictures and narrates his own story, which eventually includes other animals living in other cages, whose fate is little better than his. In addition to Ivan, the cast of the book includes a handful of humans: Mack, the reprehensible ringmaster, janitor George, and his daughter Julia, a child who sits outside the enclosures drawing the animals and sharing paper and pencil with Ivan for his own artwork. Bob, the stray dog, can wriggle in and out of tight spaces that allows him to join Ivan occasionally for a conversation or a comfortable nap. The elderly elephant Stella is long past her circus-days prime, but she is prodded by Mack into daily lackluster performances for the meager crowds who come to see. Later in the book Stella is joined by a young elephant named Ruby. In this gorilla stream of consciousness story, the ragtag band of sentient animals begins to see life through Ruby's eyes, and Ivan finds a way to use his artwork to save Ruby from the life of abuse and neglect the others have known. Applegate draws the book to a tidy conclusion with the animals moving to a zoo in what—for the most part—is a “happily ever after” ending.

It takes a number of pages as the book opens before the author hits her writing stride. On the third page of the book Ivan says, “Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.”2 And yet Applegate through Ivan proceeds to use wordy metaphors that seem to be made of the very human noise he objected to—metaphors like “I wear a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback”3 or “Her voice was like the throaty bark of a dog chained outside on a cold night.”4 Lovely images these, and yet they undo the desired comparison of wordy, shallow humans to Ivan, a gorilla of few words.

The book is visually airy comprised of short sentences, short paragraphs, and short chapters (if they can be called chapters), all of which are likely to make for comfortable reading for reluctant readers who can be off put by text-rich stories. But what makes the story succinct also makes it choppy, and Ivan's story doesn't flow as smoothly as it might. (Perhaps choppiness is to be expected of ape-ian storytellers.) The vocabulary is well suited to 8–12 year old readers, but, curiously, there is a glossary that precedes the first chapter, which seems unnecessary since each of the words defined there is defined equally as well in context.

The story is told with gentle humor, and it pulses with kindness, friendship, and compassion. The concept of animal abuse and unnatural habitats is never far out of view, however, and as a result there is an underlying somber tone, and in some places the story is simply sad. The story protagonists—the good guys—are the animals, and the bad guys are humans.

There is a subtle evolutionary subtext, shown here as Ivan traces his family tree.

“I am a great ape, and you [the reader] are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins.

“I know this is troubling.

“I too find it hard to believe there is a connection across time and space, linking me to a race of ill-mannered clowns.

“Chimps. There's no excuse for them.”5

Though couched in humor with an unexpected twist, the point is made that our tree goes back to the same roots as apes—a point that will concern creationists.

Ivan's story is inspired by a true story of twin apes captured in Africa and transported to the United States. His sister perished en route to the United States, and the real Ivan existed alone in a cage until he was moved to Zoo Atlanta in 1994.

The One and Only Ivan is a quirky book, and it may be that its greatest appeal is to adults. A quick survey of customer book reviews on various websites reveals a significant number of “I liked the book, but my children didn't” responses.

Regardless of whether children are drawn to the book, parents and teachers will find talking points aplenty, ranging from the themes identified by the publisher as “friendship, art, and hope.”6 And Ivan's story could lead to a discussion of origins and our part in thoughtful care of God's creation. Although talking points can make a book useful as a tool, even when it is not a satisfying reading journey, young readers will benefit most from a book that is both satisfying and thought provoking. Finding a book like that is, in the words of Ivan, “not as easy as it looks.”7

2 Applegate, Katherine. The One and Only Ivan. (New York: HarperCollins, 2012) 3.
3 Applegate, 4.
4 Ibid, 11.
5 Ibid., 4-5.
6 “The One and Only Ivan - Official Book Trailer.”
7 Applegate, 1.

Looking for trustworthy youth books? JourneyForth, an imprint of BJU Press, produces books for all ages.

 by Nancy Lohr. Updated October 21, 2015.