The One and Only Ivan book review: Melancholy brilliance ahead

The One and Only Ivan book Photo Courtesy Disney. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved
The One and Only Ivan book Photo Courtesy Disney. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved /

The One and Only Ivan book is well worth its Newbery Medal. Spoilers follow.

With the release of The One and Only Ivan movie this weekend, it seemed like a great time for The One and Only Ivan book review.

Written by Katherine Applegate (creator of the Animorphs series in the 1990s), The One and Only Ivan was published in 2012 by and won the 2013 Newbery Medal, the highest honor children’s literature can bestow (other winners include Caddie Woodlawn, Rabbit Hill, Ginger Pye, Sounder, The Giver, Shiloh and Holes).


In late 1980s Washington State, there is a stationary circus inside a mall, where dwells an artistic 27-year-old gorilla named Ivan, his friend Stella the wise old elephant, and his best friend Bob the tiny stray dog.

Their owner is Mack, who raised Ivan as a baby and is currently on the edge of going broke due to a lack of customers. His only real employee (that we as readers see) is George the janitor, who often brings his daughter Julia along to work with him, where she does homework and draws pictures.

Ivan and Bob often watch TV, where they learn about the outside world, which includes interesting concepts like Westerns, romance movies and animal shows (which sometimes include zoos).

As would be expected, Ivan is somewhat melancholy at best, and things only get worse when Mack adds a baby elephant named Ruby into the cast.

Stella eventually dies of maltreatment, leaving Ivan and Bob to figure out how best to take care of Ruby from with their glass-walled domains.

Eventually, Ivan gets the idea to paint a billboard mural to move Ruby into a zoo, which draws local media attention, and later national media attention that forces the mall/circus to close as Ivan and Ruby are transferred to a zoo.

Gradually, they each become part of their respective groups, as Ivan finally has a gorilla family to call his own, Ruby has a caring elephant family to replace the ones she lost (first her biological family, then with Stella), and Bob gets a happy ending himself as Julia adopts him.

What we thought

Ivan is based on a true story – he was jailed in a Tacoma shopping center for many years, eventually moving to a Seattle zoo before moving permanently to Zoo Atlanta, where he lived until his death from old age in 2012.

Wesley read this in college as part of his Children’s Literature class, which was his favorite class that he took. A voice actor classmate (who has actually professionally narrated a novel) would be the perfect narrator for Ivan, who will be voiced by Sam Rockwell.

“It’s easy for children to embrace animal characters, I think, because they’re kindred spirits,” Applegate said in her Newbery acceptance speech, which was included in our copy of the book. “wild-hearted and possessed of powers others don’t fully appreciate.”

Later on in the speech, she says, “Children know all about sadness. We can’t hide it from them. We can only teach them how to cope with its inevitability and harness their imagination in their search for joy and wonder.”

While the short fragments of chapters, most of which are barely a page long, take some getting used to, they also illustrate really well how an animal (including dogs) would probably think if their thought processes were more similar to humans.

The One and Only Ivan is one of the best children’s books ever written, in our opinion. That means that adults should read it as well, for everyone was a child once, and so many of the most powerful stories find their initial audience there.

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