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The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

  • (R) Recommended
  • (Zzz) Short Chapters 
  • Short reading time- 3-4 hrs 
  • Several references to animal abuse/deaths in captivity

Did They Really Read the Book?

The kiddos will most certainly root for the animals to escape from captivity and you'll know they actually read the book if they can tell you most of the following details:
  • Theme: animals don’t belong in cages- (Ivan initially calls his cage a domain)
  • Notable Characters:
    • Ivan is a proud but reserved, 27y/o Silverback Gorilla...and an artist
      • always lived alone
      • paints things found in his cage using crayons and finger paints 
      • paintings sold for money in the gift shop "with or without a frame"
      • sleeps with a stray dog named Bob
    • Julia (also an artist) is the human daughter of the only custodian on-site at the big-top 
      • does art with Ivan while her dad works to pay mom's medical bills
      • routinely deciphers Ivan's paintings (a Black Beetle)
    • Stella is Ivan's elephant companion 
      • performs 3 x day/365 days /year- subjected to physical abuse when non-compliant
      • Tells the story of a zoo and changes Ivan's perception of captivity
      • becomes the surrogate for a newly acquired baby elephant (named Ruby)
  • Plot details:
    • Ivan promises Stella that he'll watch after Ruby- make a better life for her in a zoo
    • Stella dies of a neglected foot infection
    • Ivan paints a billboard-size zoo mural that Julia pieces together, deciphers w/ her Dad
    • Publicity of Ivan's mural attracted enough attention to uncover poor animal conditions
    • The big-top animals are shipped off to local zoo and shelters for adoption
    • Ivan gets his troop and a wide open space that overlooks Ruby's habitat
    • Ivan reflects on his promise to the Stella and feels satisfied 
Stella also tells a story about Jambo the Gorilla--who protected an injured child that fell in his zoo pen--definitely worth the 2-5 minute clip to enrich the contextual quality of the story.

Final Notes

  If you have deeply empathic kids who feel for animals or perhaps embrace the Wild Kratts mantra “..animals belong free and in the wild...”—this book will offer several well-guided moments for personal thought and reflection on the use of animals for human entertainment.

The author wrote in the afterword that a majority of the book was of her own imagination but that Ivan was seeded from the story of a real gorilla that was really in captivity.

This felt like a kid’s spin-off of one of my favorite adult books--Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  It’s about the transition of society away from the hunter-gatherer towards an agricultural system….as told by a telepathic gorilla…Don't let the telepathy scare you away-- It's a captivating and wonderfully though-provoking story.  Definitely recommended if you also like Guns, Germs, Steel by Jared Diamond or The Rise and Fall of the of Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte.  


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