Sunday, September 30, 2012

Book Review #13: The One and Only Ivan

This month's Animal Fantasy Book Review features a new species: gorillas!  Katherine Applegate's The One and Only Ivan was recommended to me, and I'm so very glad I picked it up.  Here's the blurb from the book's website:

Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he's seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it's up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.
The One and Only Ivan is inspired by a true story about a gorilla who spent most of his life on display in a mall.  In Applegate's story, public outcry helps rescue Ivan and the other animals, but it's Ivan who sets the ball in motion.  The story is beautifully written and poignant, and leaves the reader thinking about wild animals in captivity long after the last page.  What I admired most about this story, though, is the range of emotion Applegate conveys and how she presents the world through Ivan's point of view.

The book is told from the title character's first person perspective.  Ivan's voice and thoughts are solidly "gorilla."  He starts out as a very simple narrator.  He's more interested in the here and now (and what tasty things there are to eat in it) than what was or what might be.  His art incorporates the banana peels at his feet and he wonders how Julia, the janitor's daughter, can draw things from her imagination.  What's remarkable is that the reader can actually see Ivan's simple nature on the page--literally.  The book is written in very small paragraphs, with large spaces between each.  Chapter numbers are non-existent (though there are "titles" at the top of some of the pages), and the book mimics the day-after-day-after-day feel of living in captivity.  Ivan would probably have continued on in his rut if Ruby, the baby elephant, didn't wind up in the cage next to him.  Her presence (and never-ending questions) causes him to remember his painful, buried past and think about the future.  It's a remarkable set-up: the reader sees the world through the eyes of Ivan, and in turn, Ivan begins to see the world through the eyes of Ruby.  And by seeing the world in a new way, Ivan decides he can change it in his own, gorilla way.  (Which I certainly won't spoil for you!)         

This gorilla-viewpoint may seem like it would be monotonous or humdrum as it reflects a life in captivity, but it's actually the opposite.  Ivan (and Applegate) say so much in saying so little.  Ivan's life may seem boring from his cage, but the cages around him are full of animals, too.  Ivan's thoughts and interactions with his neighbors brings so much emotion to the story.  One minute I was laughing; the next I was getting teary.  My favorite line in the book takes place when the animals are talking about where they came from, and the dog character declares, "Everyone has parents.  It's unavoidable."  (Which is hilarious on many levels!)  Making readers feel such a wide array of emotions is difficult to do as a writer, but incredibly important.  This skill sets apart "good" books from "great" ones.  If you want your own novel to fall into the "great" category, you should definitely study how Applegate tugs at her readers' heartstrings AND tickles their funny bones.

If you love books about zoo animals/primates/elephants/dogs, this book is certainly for you.  If you love books that make you laugh or cry, it's also for you.  In fact, if you're a person who doesn't even like animal fantasy stories, I still think this book is for you.  This is one of those rare books that I truly believe would appeal to any reader because it's simply a great story.  And of course, if you write animal fantasy, then you owe it to yourself to read this book.  (No excuses.  Get your tushy to a bookstore pronto!)

You can find out more about Ivan (the real and fictional one) at the book's website here:  And if you read it, do let me know.  I'd love to hear what you think!

Happy reading!

Note: Cover art and summary blurb are both from the book's official website, linked above.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! I'm very glad you enjoyed it! (And if you haven't read the book, I hope it's inspired you to give it a try!)