Thursday, March 22, 2012

2013 Contenders: The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

I'm having some trouble figuring out how to write about The One and Only Ivan.

I finished the book two days ago in a little torrent of tears, so I dutifully put off writing my review for a day, in order to give my emotional reaction a chance to subside. When I looked at it again yesterday, however, the whole story was still bathed in the kind of glow that resists critical analysis.

Now it's today, and... I still can't find anything bad to say about the darned thing. So let's start with the good.

Ivan is a gorilla with an artist's soul, held captive in an incredibly depressing - and increasingly unprofitable - roadside mall-cum-circus. In order to survive, he actively suppresses his gorilla nature and refuses to fully comprehend the tragedy of his own situation. When the circus owner brings in a baby elephant to boost business, Ivan's protective silverback instincts are aroused, and he is moved to act on her behalf. 

The prose is so stark, especially for a children's book, that this almost reads as a verse novel. In fact, you could make the argument that some of the short chapters - all written from Ivan's first-person point of view - are actually prose poems. This restraint, along with the quiet dignity of Ivan's voice, focuses the story and keeps it from straying into melodrama.  "Humans speak too much," he says, on the second or third page. "They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say." The same cannot be said for Applegate's novel. Each word is essential, and deliberately chosen.

The double meaning of the title is a perfect example. It's taken from a billboard outside the mall, which advertises "The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback!" Of course, Ivan is also the one and only gorilla in his strictly circumscribed world - cut off from the rest of his species since his twin sister, Tag, died shortly after their capture. Even the name of his stuffed gorilla toy - "Not-Tag" - is a poignant reminder of his solitude, and of the artificial nature of his environment.

I don't think it's giving too much away to mention that The One and Only Ivan has a happy ending. My cynical mind might have found that implausible without the author's note, which assures us that the real Ivan is now living happily in Zoo Atlanta. And I might have criticized Applegate for sugarcoating zoos themselves, but she carefully reminds us, in Ivan's voice, that "This is, after all, still a cage." Humans aren't perfect, even when we try to make amends.

The moral complexity doesn't start or end there. I refer you to Fuse 8's review, which does an excellent job of explaining why Mack, the villain, is so well-drawn. 

Even the cover is impressive. Ivan and Ruby (the baby elephant) are in the spotlight, but Ivan, our self-effacing protagonist, is facing away from the viewer, gazing sadly and defiantly back over his shoulder at us. And maybe I'm reading too much into it, but isn't it Ruby, after all, who teaches him to look backwards - to remember his animal nature?

So, yes. If I were on an official committee, I would need someone else to point out the shortcomings of this book. Because I just love it a whole bunch. With its fast pace, non-cutesy animal characters, and thorny moral questions, I think kids will love it too.

Published by HarperCollins - on shelves now.


  1. Hooray! I nominated this for MD Mock Newbery! I really liked it too! If you *need* something bad to say about it, you can always say that its a bit of a "Charlotte's Web" rip off, but with a gorilla and elephant in place of the spider and pig respectively. You can also say that a particularly sensitive child may be emotionally scarred for life after reading the devastating accounts of animals being taken from their families and natural habitats. Also, *SPOILER ALERT* I'm not sure what zoo Ivan and Ruby end up at at the end of the book, but it's some ideal perfect zoo that I've never seen before. Most zoos I visit are rather depressing, however not as depressing as a circus mall, so I'll go with it. I think the best thing about this book is how artfully written it is, an element that would hopefully not be lost on the young audience it's targeted at.

  2. It is definitely an idyllic zoo, but I was willing to go with the fact that just being able to go outside (and interact with other gorillas) would feel amazing to Ivan.

    I've been to Zoo Atlanta. It's ok. If I were an animal, I wouldn't want a bunch of slimy chimps gawking at me under any circumstances, but so it goes.

  3. Sadly, the one and only Ivan has passed away at Zoo Atlanta. He was 50 and had lived there for 17 years. He had cancer.

    His ashes are being returned to Tacoma, WA to his original family.

    Ivan continued to get cards, letters, birthday greetings and other greetings on his Facebook Page all these years. He was very loved.