The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

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Genre: Fantasy

Winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal 

This is the book that beat out Wonder for 2013’s Newbery medal, and I can see why…if the Newbery Medal is the prize for the book that makes you cry the most. Geez Louise. I read it mostly in one sitting and had to stifle my sobs so my husband didn’t think I was nuts. Make sure you have a box of tissues nearby.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, my family visited my grandparents in Ohio. While on that trip, my grandfather took my siblings and me to a safari park nearby. You may have seen or been to something similar – you stay in your car and drive through the zoo – which I remember was almost exclusively camels – and feed them things out the window while they chew on your car’s antenna. I think there was also a camel ride involved. Even as a tween I recognized the utter pathos that surrounded the entire endeavor.  But the part I remember most vividly was one of the few caged animals they had – a white tiger. I was surprised to see such an exotic and beautiful animal among all the other ordinary ones. It was kept in an outdoor cage that I remember being roughly 20’x20′. It laid on its side, immobile, while flies swarmed around some sort of open sore on its flank. That image has stayed with me ever since: this majestic beast that seemed to have completely given up, presumably wondering how it ended up in a tiny cage in central Ohio instead of the jungles of India.

This is the mood at the opening of The One and Only Ivan. Ivan is a gorilla whose home is an aging novelty mall that features a small zoo and daily animal shows. Ivan is used to his life in the mall and has made friends with the few animals and humans around him. His solace is the art he creates using paper and crayons, most of which is sold in the mall’s gift shop. But when a baby elephant is brought to live at the mall, Ivan becomes determined to create a better life for her than the one he has known. In order to do so, he needs to delve into his past and his memories of his former life and use his creativity and friendships to bring about a miracle.

This book is beautifully written and easy to read, and will appeal to kids of all ages – best for grades 5-8. It’s a quick read, as many page have only a few sentences. Applegate does a beautiful job of imagining Ivan’s inner thoughts and capturing what the cadence of a gorilla might be. Ivan’s voice is believable and perfectly captures his…gorllia-ness.

As I said before, it’s a five-hanky book. At one point it even becomes rather brutal when he describes his parents’ death, and I question the author’s inclusion of that passage. My main issue with the book – and the one that made me question its accolades the most – is that um, hey: this is basically Charlotte’s Web. I’m really surprised this comparison hasn’t been made loudly and more often. It took some of the magic out of the story for me because it seemed so similar, and yet…well, nothing can touch Charlotte’s Web. I do recommend it as it’s a great read, but you’ve been warned: don’t read it if you’ve just had a baby or, or your dog just died, or, you know, you’ve just spilled some milk.

On an interesting note, elements of the book are based on a true story. It will definitely make you – and students – more aware of the plight of many animals kept in captivity.

Teaching resources:

Author’s Website:

Publisher’s Website:

NPR’s Backseat Book Club page about the book, with more information about the real Ivan, an interview with Applegate and an audio clip from “All Things Considered”:

More information about the real Ivan from Zoo Atlanta

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal’s page on animals used for entertainment:

The Gorilla Foundation – Information about gorillas and Koko, another gorilla artist

The World Wildlife Federation’s page about gorillas:

Author interview:

Applegate’s Newbery speech:

Applegate on the Writer’s Voice podcast:

Lesson Plans:

Unit Plan from Global Read Aloud

PDF Discussion Guide from the publisher:

Classroom Bookshelf’s page, a great resource with links and lesson ideas:

Ideas for Assessment

1. What do you think about the ending of this book? Would you change anything about it? What about it makes it a good ending or a bad ending for each of the characters? Can you suggest a better ending? (Evaluation)

2. What might be another solution to Ivan’s problem of how to create a better life for Ruby? Can you come up with an alternate plan? What might he have done if his first plan had failed? (Analysis/Synthesis)

3. Create some works of art that Ruby might create if she were an artist like Ivan.

4. Compare and contrast Ivan and Bob. (Analysis)

5. What are some of the problems with animals being held in captivity? Can you design any solutions to those problems? (Analysis/Synthesis)


Please leave questions, comments, book review requests, etc. below!


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