Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla Book Poster Image
Poignant, sensitive story of captive gorilla builds empathy.

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Educational Value

Ivan is an excellent jumping-off point for discussions about our relationship to animals and nature. Ivan's natural habitat and family life in the wild is contrasted with his lonely, deprived captivity. The book also shows his early upbringing in a human family, in which he went to baseball games and slept in a bed. What's right for animals? What's not?

Positive Messages

Instills empathy and respect for animals. Contrasts captivity with a natural habitat. Models the positive effects of protests, petitions, and boycotts to confront injustice. Text and art show children active in letter-writing campaigns.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Children are shown actively working to help Ivan and change his sad and unjust circumstances. Their campaign is successful.

Violence & Scariness

"Poachers with loud guns and cruel hands" capture Ivan and another young gorilla. One illustration shows Ivan and the other young gorilla trapped in the dark crate in which they were transported. The other young gorilla dies shortly after arrival.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla is based on the true story of a young gorilla who was captured in Africa and grew up on display in a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Author Katherine Applegate won the 2013 Newbery Medal for her fictionalized middle grade novel on the same subject, The One and Only Ivan, and this nonfiction picture book brings the story to younger readers. The story is told simply and beautifully, from Ivan's happy days with his family in the jungle to his confinement at the mall to his transfer to a more natural habitat in a zoo in Atlanta. G. Brian Karas' illustrations are as moving and sensitive as the text. A two-page afterward provides more facts. The book can serve as a thoughtful jumping-off point for family discussions about animals and our relationship to nature.

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What's the story?

IVAN: THE REMARKABLE TRUE STORY OF THE SHOPPING MALL GORILLA is a nonfiction book for older picture book readers. It's based on the true story of a gorilla, Ivan, who was captured as a youth in Africa and transported to Tacoma, Washington. His jungle childhood with his family is contrasted with his life in his subsequent, human family, who fed him ice cream and took him to baseball games. But when Ivan grew too big to be comfortably accommodated, he was moved to a cage in a shopping mall, where he served as an attraction to lure shoppers. Ivan spent many lonely years in the cage with little stimulation until people rallied to his cause and protested his conditions. Due to the publicity, he was transported to a gorilla habitat in Zoo Atlanta, where he was slowly integrated into an environment with other gorillas.

Is it any good?

Ivan is excellent, the perfect vehicle for introducing young children to sensitive questions about wildlife and our relationship to nature. Though it's nonfiction, it's told as gently as a story, and children are given the opportunity to see Ivan's experiences through his own eyes, providing lots of opportunities for empathy. G. Brian Karas' art is a perfect match, warm and child-friendly, expressively portraying Ivan's emotions.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about animals and how they're different from people. What are they like in the wild? What is captivity like for them?

  • How is this book different from other books you've read about animals? 

  • What can you do when you see injustice? What did the kids in the story do? Were they successful? How, and why? Do you ever see things that you think are unjust? What are they?

Book details

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For kids who love picture books and animal stories

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