A Silverback’s Promise: The One and Only Ivan


Newbery Winner, 2012

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (2012)

Suggested age range: 8 and up

(Harper Collins, 306 pages)

When the Newbery winner was announced for 2012, and I realized I had not read the awarded book, I quickly remedied the situation and settled down to read Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. The story reminded me a little of The Magician’s Elephant, another fantasy novel you would do well to read, if you have not. Currently, we are reading Applegate’s book aloud in my 8th grade English classroom.

First, however, a few words about Ivan.

“I was born in a place humans call central Africa, in a dense rain forest so beautiful, no crayons could ever do it justice.”

Ivan is a gorilla. He is a friend to an elephant and a stray dog, an observer of humans, and an artist. He lives in a mall.

“I have been in my domain for nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days. Alone.”

If you haven’t met Ivan, you can expect your life to be changed when you do. This novel about a gorilla who lives at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video arcade is truly a winner. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful. It’s humorous and moving. It is a work of children’s literature that will engage your heart—it is a story with the potential to nurture the spirit of the reader.

“I know what most humans think. They think gorillas don’t have imaginations. They think we don’t remember our pasts or ponder our futures.”

Ivan is no ordinary gorilla. He watches television, spends time with his dear friends, Stella, an old elephant who also performs at the mall, and Bob, a stray dog. The trio bond as each day illuminates the same routine—show after show, day after day–for the humans who come to view the animals. Stella is an important figure to Ivan as she mentors, encourages, and challenges him.

“Stella says she is sure I will see another real, live gorilla someday, and I believe her because she is even older than I am and has eyes like black stars and knows more than I will ever know.”

Furthermore, Ivan is an artist. He loves to draw, and his drawings catch quite a penny in the mall gift shop. In this first person narrative, Ivan’s thoughts and observations about the world reflect a character we quickly grow to love.

At one point in the story, the animals realize a new arrival is on its way—another friend to join them. When Ruby, a young elephant arrives, Ivan takes it upon himself to be her protector. With Stella’s encouragement, Ivan begins to wonder whether there is another life for Ruby—a life beyond the monotony of performing for humans at the mall in show after show, day after day. Will Ivan’s friendship and his artistic creations be enough to help Ruby?

“ ‘I’ve always been an artist. I love drawing.’ ‘Why do you love it?’ Ruby asks. I pause. I’ve never talked to anyone about this before. ‘When I’m drawing a picture, I feel…quiet inside.’”

How will the different relationships Ivan has cultivated at the mall change as the story unfolds? These are questions for you, dear reader, to ponder as you experience Applegate’s novel. Rather than share my thoughts about the end of the novel, I will refrain, so that you can be surprised.

The One and Only Ivan raises multiple significant themes, including the idea that compassion for others leads to action and intervening on their behalf. The story suggests that expressing our creativity in surprising ways can lead to transformational experiences that bring hope and love to others. The relationships among the characters communicates the idea that our connections with others are vital, life changing and can affect us in ways we do not expect.

You will surely want to meet The One and Only Ivan, winner of this year’s Newbery medal.


2 thoughts on “A Silverback’s Promise: The One and Only Ivan

  1. Great review! This made me want to read the book right away. I wish this would already be available in the Philippines.

  2. Pingback: Children’s Book Week Kid Lit Giveaway HOP (US): The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate | Spirit of Children's Literature

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