Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #89: The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate


Bloody fantastic. Upon finishing The One and Only Ivan, those were the first words to spring to mind. Following them, I started planning to indoctrinate my oldest nephew. Forget money being tight; I would buy him a copy this year for Christmas and stand watch until I was sure he’d read and digested it in its entirety. Afterwards, I might even quiz him, the most important question being the following: “Was that not bloody fantastic? Are you not entertained?” Scratch that Gladiator reference. Replace the second line with this, instead: “Are you not amazed?”

As if it weren’t already clear, I most certainly was. Ivan, as imagined by Katherine Applegate, author of the well-know Animorphs series, shows more traces of humanity, at least our concept of it, than many people I know. Except, he remains identifiably animalistic. Capturing the essence of any animal in such a way that it remains immediately recognizable is a task few writers can handle. It’s for this reason that, whenever I tell anyone about The One and Only Ivan, I feel it necessary to assure and reassure them of its complete and resounding success at doing precisely that.

And it’s not children ages 8-12, the suggested age group, that I’ve been recommending it to. Like Pixar, Applegate touches on things so universal that anyone can relate to, age (or species) be damned. If you’ve gone through puberty, you can relate to Ivan’s bumbling efforts to learn what it is to be one of his kind. If you’ve ever been young or misunderstood, you can sympathize with his plight to be heard. Few of us have lives filled with as much pain, loss, and isolation as Ivan’s, but all of us (excluding the sociopaths, of course) can relate to and sympathize with him and his story.

To what extent, you ask? Okay, I have a question for you. Did you cry duringDumbo? If the answer is yes, I’d start stocking up on tissues. Having an animal friend nearby to hug tight at your convenience wouldn’t hurt, either. The One and Only Ivan benefits from being based, loosely, on a true story; by benefits, I mean it makes Ivan’s tale that much more heartbreaking. Unlike Dumbo, he’s not entirely the product of a person’s imagination. Applegate took artistic license with the story, wanting “to give Ivan … someone to protect, and the chance to be the mighty silverback he was always meant to be.” But Ivan himself isn’t fiction, even though his thoughts might be.

As you can read here, Ivan was very real, and the steps along his journey remained the same. Applegate did make adjustments for the sake of the story, yet she wasn’t rewriting history. “I wanted to give Ivan a voice of his own and a story to tell,” she says. I only wish she’d given him even more of a story to tell; I finished The One and Only Ivan in record time and, for one of the first times in my life, I experienced genuine sadness upon seeing that there was nothing left to read. It wasn’t just because it left me with nothing to read on the way home, either, though that did play a part.

The One and Only Ivan is, fittingly, one of a kind. No other book, not even Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, taps into what it is to be not just an animal, but a living, thinking, and feeling being. I feel more kinship towards Ivan than I do towards any of my friends, to be honest. Unfortunately, though, I’ll never get the opportunity to truly meet Ivan, the real Ivan, as he died on August 20, 2012. That being said, he will live on forever in spirit thanks to Katherine Applegate and The One and Only Ivan.


Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.