The One and Only Ivan

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The One and Only Ivan Book Poster Image
Parents recommendPopular with kids
Heartwarming story of a heroic, artistic, captive gorilla.

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 21 reviews

Kids say

age 8+
Based on 29 reviews

Did this review miss something on diversity?

Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive, diverse representations in books, TV shows, and movies. Want to help us help them? Suggest a diversity update

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will learn quite a bit about the habits of lowland gorillas in their native Africa. Through the experiences of the animal characters in The One and Only Ivan, they'll also become acquainted with a number of animal-welfare issues.

Positive Messages

The loyalty among Ivan and his friends comes through in many ways, even when things are at their direst. And Ivan's promise to adult elephant Stella that he'll save baby elephant Ruby and get her to a better place than the circus mall (even though he has no idea how he's going to do it) and the efforts he makes to keep his promise are evidence of his emerging noble character.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ivan develops and matures into a noble gorilla (as well as an inspired artist) as the tale progresses. Stella is a veritable saint among elephants, with much motherly wisdom to offer. The kid Julia, who supplies Ivan first with crayons and then finger paint, sets him off on his artistic career and offers him friendship, while her father struggles to do the right thing under virtually impossible conditions. The baby elephant Ruby has had enough experience of life to point out that humans can be saviors as well as abusers.

Violence & Scariness

Both Ivan's and Ruby's families have been killed in the process of the babies' capture, and while there isn't a detailed description of the gore, they're both traumatized by the experience (though Ivan has initially blocked out the memory). Ivan isn't currently treated with violence, but one animal dies for lack of veterinary care, and Ruby is threatened with a skin-tearing elephant hook to make her do tricks. Bob is the only survivor of a litter of puppies dumped on the freeway.


Applegate uses the term "me-balls" for the balls of excrement that Ivan throws at tourists on the other side of the glass wall who annoy him.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that 2013 Newbery Medal winner The One and Only Ivan, by Animorphs co-author Katherine Applegate, was inspired by the true story of a gorilla who, after more than a quarter century of captivity in a tourist trap, now lives happily in a fine habitat at Zoo Atlanta and is renowned for his art. In Applegate's tale, he's acquired a few fictional friends, and the story has picked up some plot embellishments driven by the arrival of an innocent baby elephant. One thing both the true and fictional Ivan share is that he and his twin sister were captured as infants in Africa, and his twin died in transit. Over the course of their lives, Ivan and his friends encounter many examples of both the best and the worst the human race has to offer, and some kids may be ill-prepared for the cruelty.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written by25heatoemia May 13, 2019

READ IT!!!!!!!!!!

BEST BOOK ON EARTH!!! Parents are saying its a bad book BUT its NOTTT!! I loved this book i read it to my 6 yr old sister and she has been more kind and loving.... Continue reading
Adult Written byKathryn G. April 29, 2019

Good Grief!

As a student teacher this was the read-aloud selected for my second grade class. Goodness gracious! It was SO violent in portions that I had to do some serious... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old May 12, 2021

Great book!

I love the one and only Ivan! However, some parts can be a bit creepy :/
Kid, 11 years old May 9, 2021

What's up with the ending?

This book is boring. It sucks. Why does everyone love it? It's not compelling at all and is just flat the whole way through, never actually being exciting.... Continue reading

What's the story?

Based on the true story of a gorilla who now lives happily in a lowland gorilla habitat at Zoo Atlanta but before that had spent 27 years in a cage in a shopping mall after being captured as a baby in Africa, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN tells, from the gorilla's standpoint, of life in the circus mall, being gawked at by tourists, and how it all seems so normal. But the arrival of a baby elephant starts to trigger memories, and before long Ivan finds himself making promises he's not sure how he's going to keep.

Is it any good?

Animal-loving kids -- and just about anyone with a heart -- will become quite fond of the artistic Ivan and his multi-species friends (including the kid, Julia). Applegate's affinity for animals led her to co-author the hugely popular Animorphs science-fiction series, in which kids have the power to transform into a particular animal and thus see the world from their perspective. Her decision to tell Ivan's story through the gorilla's eyes will be more engaging for some kids than others, but it's a good bet for those who've enjoyed other animal-oriented tales.

Applegate is deeply concerned about a number of animal-welfare-related issues that come to the fore in this book, some of which are more complex than can be addressed in the voice of a gorilla in a book for 8-year-olds. Interesting discussions may ensue -- one reader may feel that the narrative (and the glossary) suffers at times from didacticism or information overload, while another could be moved to become the next Jane Goodall

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the families of gorillas and elephants and how attached to one another members of those families become.

  • Do you have a zoo you can visit that features habitats like the ones in the animals' original homes so you can see how they really live? Do they seem happy?

  • Which was better for helping Ivan solve problems, throwing balls of poop or creating art?

  • Animal stories are very popular with kids. Why do you think that is?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love animals

Themes & Topics

Browse titles with similar subject matter.

Top advice and articles

Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.

See how we rate

About these links

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes when you use our links to make a purchase. Thank you for your support.

Read more

Our ratings are based on child development best practices. We display the minimum age for which content is developmentally appropriate. The star rating reflects overall quality.

Learn how we rate