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2013 Newbery Medal Winner: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan
Written by Katherine Applegate; illustrated by Patricia Castelao
Published by HarperCollins, 2012
ISBN # 978-0061992254

Grades 3 and up

Book Review

“I used to be a wild gorilla, and I still look the part.” Like other silverback gorillas, Ivan knows he is supposed to beat his chest and protect his family. But unlike other silverbacks, Ivan doesn’t live in the wild or among other gorillas. Instead, he’s the main attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade where he’s lived complacently in a glass, metal, and concrete “domain” for as long as he can remember. Day after day, Ivan watches TV, creates drawings to be sold at the gift store, and chats with his fellow caged friends, an elderly elephant named Stella and a stray dog named Bob. And for Ivan, life seems just fine–that is, until a new baby animal joins the show and stirs Ivan’s memories about the meaning of family, home, and his nature as a mighty silverback. Based on the true story of a silverback gorilla who was captured in infancy and then spent nearly three decades confined to a circus-themed mall, Katherine Applegate’s Newbery Medal winning novel, The One and Only Ivan, raises complex questions about the relationships among animals and humans. Told through first-person narration, Ivan’s musings about humans are pithy and poignant. Students will find themselves readily rooting for Ivan, eager to learn more about the real Ivan, and perhaps developing deeper understandings about friendship and empathy in the process.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

  • “Good Zoos” – Stella tells the other animals that a “good zoo . . . is how humans make amends.” Ask your students what constitutes a good zoo and what they would want in a zoo if they were the animals that lived there. Visit a variety of zoos, online or if possible in-person, and have students research the ways they care for animals. How does the zoo acquire animals? What do the animals’ domains look like? What do they eat? What happens if they get sick? Do they get to live with other members of their species? 
  • Character Development – Ivan undergoes a significant changes in his character as the novel progresses. Have students trace that development, using specific lines from the novel to support their characterizations of him at each stage of his development. Make sure they also identify plot points that cause changes in Ivan’s character, so they understand how the various events and experiences impact Ivan and spur those changes.
  • The Urban Gorilla – Watch the 1997 National Geographic video, The Urban Gorilla, which spotlights Ivan’s story as one of the amazing cases of gorillas living in human environments and under human care. How are they similar to or different from Ivan’s? As a follow-up, have students research the other stories showcased in the video to learn what has been happening in the gorillas’ lives since the filming of the video.
  • Author Study – Katherine Applegate has written dozens of books for children and young adults. Conduct an author study of her works. There are several ways to accomplish this. You can have several small groups, and allow students to select individual titles that they compare and contrast together. Or, you could conduct an author study in which small groups become experts on one book and then they come together in a jigsaw group to start comparing and contrast the author’s work. The goal would be to have the widest range of books represented. Have students examine the content of Applegate’s work, and the similarities and differences within the range. How does this content relate to her professional and personal background? Have students also explore Applegate’s research methods, writing style and the internal organization of texts (structure, format) across her body of work.
  • Voice in Writing – Undoubtedly, voice is one of the most difficult traits of writing for students to grasp and for teachers to teach. Voice is the trait that allows readers to develop a full sense of who is speaking the words on the page, whether it is a narrator, fictionalized character, or the author himself/herself. The One and Only Ivan does a great job of illustrating exactly what voice is, as we read Ivan’s thoughts and descriptions. Engage your students in a study of how Katherine Applegate does this. What words or phrases does she choose to help readers “hear” Ivan’s distinct voice as a gorilla? How does he view and describe the same things differently from how humans or the other animals at the Big Top Mall do? To further demonstrate the quality of voice, do a reader’s theater activity with excerpts from the novel so students can really hear what Applegate is doing in her writing. Then, have students experiment with voice by perhaps writing about the same topic in different voices, including different animals’ voices. You might also use Anthony Browne’s picture book Voices in the Park, Paul Fleischman’s Seedfolks, or Jacqueline Woodson’s Behind You as mentor texts.
  • Animal Organizations – Many different organizations exist whose mission is to ensure the safe and ethical treatment of animals. PAWS is the local organization that campaigned to free the real Ivan from the mall where he lived (see the website below in Further Explorations). Invite students to research a number of these organizations and find out what some of their most recent campaigns are. Then have students research those campaigns further and present their findings via PowerPoint, class website, or wiki. If a certain campaign grabs your students’ attention, encourage them to investigate ways they can help (e.g., write letters, raise funds, etc.) and vote as a class to take real action to help.
  • Stories about Animal Friendships – Friendships between animals of different species have always been a point of fascination, and many children’s books chronicle the stories of those friendships. Read several of these stories (see some titles listed in Further Explorations below, such as Suryia and Roscoe, Owen & Mzee, Koko’s Kitten, and Unlikely Friendships) to determine what is similar and different across them. Are there certain animal species that tend to form cross-species friendships than others? What characterizes these friendships? How did those friendships begin garnering attention? What can those stories teach us about human friendships with each other and with animals?
Critical Literacy
  • Representations of Gorillas – Throughout the novel, Ivan insists that he has a peaceful nature. In fact, he is bewildered by the fierce, angry, and violent pictures that others have used to portray him. Following the solar system model of designing a text set (see Teaching with Text Sets), gather a diverse text set of books about gorillas across different genres. Compare and contrast the ways that gorillas are represented in the text descriptions and illustrations. Why are some gorillas depicted as fierce and violent, while others are are portrayed as gentle and docile? How do these representations relate to the author’s point-of-view and purpose in writing the text? How do these depictions influence the ways in which people view and understand gorillas? Author/illustrator Anthony Browne’s picture books are particularly useful for this type of critical literacy activity. 

Further Explorations

Online Resources

ALA Newbery Medal

The One and Only Ivan book website

Katherine Applegate’s author pages

Patricial Castelao’s website

Official Book Trailer for The One and Only Ivan

Zoo Atlanta information about the real Ivan

News article about Ivan’s memory

Zoo Atlanta’s YouTube video of Ivan

1994 Archive video of Ivan’s transfer to Zoo Atlanta

PAWS’ campaign for Ivan

The Gorilla Foundation

Suryia and Roscoe website

Owen and Mzee website


Antle, D. & Feldman, T. (2011). Suryia and Roscoe: The true story of an unlikely friendship. New York: Henry Holt.
Buckley, C. (2009). Tarra & Bella: The elephant and dog who became best friends. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Browne, A. (1983). Gorilla. London, UK: Julia MacRae Books.

Browne, A. (2008). Little beauty. London, UK: Walker Books.

Browne, A. (1998). Voices in the park. New York: DK Publishing.
Gibbons, G. (2012). Gorillas. New York: Holiday House.

Hatkoff, I., Hatkoff, C., & Kahumbu, P. (2006). Owen & Mzee: The true story of a remarkable friendship. New York: Scholastic.

Hatkoff, J., Hatkoff, I., Hatkoff, C., & Kahumbu, P. (2008). Looking for Miza: The true story of the mountain gorilla family who rescued one of their own. New York: Scholastic.

Holland, J. (2011). Unlikely friendships: 47 remarkable stories from the animal kingdom. New York: Workman Publishing.

Patterson, F. (1987). Koko’s kitten. New York: Scholastic.

Simon, S. (2008). Gorillas. New York: HarperCollins.

White, E. B. (1952). Charlotte’s web. New York: HarperTrophy.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.


  1. Has anyone gone through and made a vocabulary list for this book? Third grade?