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The One and Only Ivan



Heartwarming story of a heroic, artistic, captive gorilla.
Parents recommend

What parents need to know

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

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.

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.

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

Families can talk 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

Author:Katherine Applegate
Illustrator:Patricia Castelao
Topics:Wild animals
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:HarperCollins Children's Books
Publication date:January 17, 2012
Number of pages:320
Publisher's recommended age(s):8 - 12
Available on:Paperback, Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
Award:Newbery Medal and Honors

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Educator and Parent Written by1AngryDad January 7, 2015

~ I watched them kill my mother and chop off her hands

Seriously; my 9 year old opened it right up to that page... it was the only thing on that page, so it's not like it was hard to bump into or easy to read past. This book is not appropriate for children. CSM is way off on age appropriateness...
What other families should know
Too much violence
Kid, 10 years old November 1, 2013


I have a friend who is a boy and he cried during the book,and I myself sorta tomboyish cried and cried when ruby was getting abused.But i love this book it had beautiful structure and everything just magical.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Parent of a 13 year old Written bythreelambs February 4, 2013

Beautiful language, wonderful read for all ages

This book was a wonderful read for myself (pushing 40) and my 10 year old, and could easily appeal to even younger readers and children who enjoy being read to. The language is very poetic and calming, and Ivan (the gorilla) shares many poignant thoughts that readers will absorb in different ways, depending on their maturity. There are strong feelings of loss at times, so that could be a concern for younger children-- but also great conversation-starters. I don't like politics and an author's personal ideology rammed down my throat...and I'm happy to say that although there is a slight introduction of "animal rights," it is an appropriate contribution to the overall story. There is also loose referencing to evolutionary beginnings. I've seen it suggested as a good read for animal lovers, but I would say it appealed mostly to my daughter because of the artists (a young girl and Ivan, himself.) It is a beautiful, beautiful story that I will remember.