Book Review – The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

books, reviews

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I haven’t had much time for reading this weekend, so my first review of this week is going to be a small one. This was another audiobook that I borrowed from the library. It sounded really cute and I love an anthropomorphic animal tale. Even if it is based on an awful true story. I guess it reminds me of the books I read as a child. There were so many books about animals having crazy adventures. This seemed like a good chance to recapture my childhood as I went about a dull day at work.

Katherine Applegate’s book is inspired by the story of a real silverback gorilla. Ivan was captured as a baby and brought to live with humans. He spent a large portion of his life living in a shopping centre. Applegate heard about Ivan and wanted to tell his story. She wanted to give the gorilla a voice of his own, which is why The One and Only Ivan is narrated by the gorilla. Like in real life, the fictional Ivan was taken as a baby and raised with humans. He is then moved to a cage in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. He is joined by an elderly elephant and a stray dog called Bob. When a young elephant is added to their group, Ivan begins to see his life differently.

The One and Only Ivan is a much more complex and layered story than you’d expect from a children’s book. It is deep and heartbreaking. Although, it’s also sweet enough for a younger audience to enjoy. It works on so many layers. The animals are cute and their friendships are adorable. Ivan and Bob the dog are a fantastic double act. All of this makes it perfect for young readers. Then there are the deeper themes that will give older readers more to think about. There is sadness but it never gets too sad. The animals aren’t treated well but it’s not so explicit that children will be distressed about it.

Ivan is, after all, a naïve creature. He is like a human child and sees the world through his narrow point of view. It takes a lot for him to realise that his situation isn’t as good as he thinks. The language is simple and to the point. This not only stresses his innocence but also makes the story easier to understand for all ages. It makes it easier for children to empathise with him and engage with his story. The gorilla is no longer just a creature but he is on the same level as the intended reader. It’s a clever way of presenting this story to kids.

Obviously, there is a lot of sentimentality here. Giving Ivan a voice forces the reader to think about several key points. Ivan is no longer just a simple creature but a being capable of human thought and emotions. You have to address the question of what it means to be human and how many similarities there are between humans and animals. During his time at the mall, Ivan witnesses a varied group of people coming to see him. They mostly treat him badly and have no sympathy for his situation. Of course you’re going to start to wonder which of them is the most human.

The One and Only Ivan is a really good story based on real life. Yes, there is a healthy dose of Hollywood hyperbole and sentimentalism. It’s the Disney version of the real story. Ivan paints pictures that are sold in the mall. He uses this talent to communicate with his caretakers to facilitate his escape. It’s cute and kids will love it. It also gives Ivan more agency than he ever had. It has a nice fairytale vibe to it. Could the message be stronger? Possibly but I guess it was always intended for younger readers.

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