Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The One and Only Ivan

And here we go.  It’s nice to start with a title that’s likely already got a lot of readers, a lot of buzz, and plenty to discuss.  That’d be Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN…which I know many of you’d read in ARC even before last year’s results were in.

Strong early spring titles tend to top the popular polls, and this one currently ranks #2 on the Goodreads Newbery 2013 list…probably because of sheer number of voters/readers.   As I read through reviews of Goodreads “friends” who tend to be as critical as I, I see a theme emerging and it’s that we like it despite ourselves, or came to it reluctantly, or…are just not quite sure why it knocks our socks off.  All three statements go for me, though a recent re-read is helping me with the last one.

The cover of this book filled me with trepidation. “The Underneath Meets Edward Tulane,” I thought, and found, right away in my reading, concern in the overuse of language.  Ivan tells us that “Humans waste words…Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.” (p.2-3, ARC).  Yet in those same first pages, Applegate puts bushels of pretty words into Ivan’s mouth, often with overladen and unessential simile:  “I have a gorilla’s shy gaze, a gorilla’s sly smile. I wear a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback. When the sun warms my back, I cast a gorilla’s majestic shadow.” (p. 4 ARC), or   “I used to have a neighbor, a sleek and thoughtful seal, who could balance a ball on her nose from dawn till dusk. Her voice was like the throaty bark of a dog chained outside on a cold night. / Children wished on pennies and tossed them into her plastic pool. They glowed on the bottom like flat copper stones.” (p.11 ARC).  These are both lovely passages in themselves, and I wouldn’t fault Applegate her words if she’d posited a wordy character.  But these passages take a lot of words to say what they say, and the metaphors in them don’t add anything to the picture.  Why can’t the seal’s bark just be throaty? The pennies just glow? The similes used for these don’t add anything to the picture or the character or the plot.  (An example of a useful simile is on page 94: “She makes a happy, lilting sound, an elephant laugh. It’s like the song of a bird I recall from long ago, a tiny yellow bird with a voice like dancing water.” This double-simile both helps the reader hear exactly what the sound is like, and advances the emotional plot, as we now feel the nostalgia that Ivan does on hearing it.) There are a lot of passages like these in the first several dozen pages as Applegate sets her scenes and characters, making Ivan’s voice sound diametrically unlike what she’s suggested it should.

It takes a while for Applegate to work herself out of this super-metaphorical language to a point where it starts sounding more natural, and to bring in all the characters that start to move the story forward…namely, Ruby.  Once she’s got it going though…she somehow is completely convincing, and I’m willing to forget Ivan’s initially inconsistent voice and believe wholly in his character.   So how did she manage it?  I’m still not exactly sure.  The animals gestures feel true, and vivid, and consistent, so that I believe in each character as the animal they are.  And the complexity of Ivan and Mack’s relationship as it’s slowly revealed helps me believe more in some of Ivan’s peculiarities–it helps to understand why he understands humans so well (and why, for instance, he might compare a seal’s bark to that of a dog chained outside at night. Too late though).   The climax teeters on preposterous, and yet Applegate keeps it realistic: Ivan’s drawings are messy, and crumpled, and depend on the luck of a friend being able to see the bigger picture.  And Mack is never wholly good or bad–becoming, rather, tragic–so that the happy ending is tempered by his sadness.

So, when it comes down to it, from a Newbery perspective, am I willing to forgive the book its hard path in to a great story?   I find the slow start and “warming up” voice a significant flaw.  We do get significant payoff…payoff that speaks directly to the terms and criteria of the Newbery award, being “individually distinct” and “noted for significant achievement.”  So, it goes on my “possibly…” shelf, to wait for some comparisons.  It’s looking like a strong year.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:

    THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is one of the first 2013 Newbery books that I read many months ago, and I appreciated the book’s strengths which have only grown on me as I have sifted through other middle grade fiction contenders. I’ll need to reread this one soon in order to more fully discuss it, but I did want to mention that when Ivan talked about humans wasting words and speaking too much I thought it was an allusion to the prose poetry form of the novel which I did find to be more spare and efficient than prose and yet lyrical enough to suggest poetry without relying on the hackneyed conventions of the verse novel. In short, I think it effectively captured Ivan’s distinct voice. Nina’s point about the overuse of simile and metaphor is well taken, however, and I will pay closer attention to it on a reread.

  2. Interesting. I didn’t see Ivan’s statement about humans talking too much as a mission statement for his own writing at all – just as a critique of humans which Ivan may or may not live up to . Also, I can’t remember – does his verbosity extend to his actual dialogue in the book, or just his descriptions? – because I think those are very separate things. Personally, I was sold on his voice on the very first page – especially the line “it’s not as easy as it looks” – and thought all along “this is how a gorilla would talk.”

    Mack was probably the most interesting character in the book – very subtly drawn and without any real resolution to his character. I was fascinated by him.

  3. The only question is what color the medal on the cover will be. Newbery LOCK.

  4. I had similar thoughts about Ivan’s voice, Mark–not that that’s how he would really speak to others, but how he would voice his feelings internally, if that makes sense. It made sense to me that a gorilla would think in metaphors and similes, and the thought about the dog on the chain gave me an early glimpse into the bleakness of his experience.

  5. Boy, (Wendy and Mark), I just remember thinking the exact opposite. I thought Ivan was too wordy and poetic and didn’t believe that a gorilla, even *this* gorilla, would speak this way.

    Nina hit the nail on the head with ALL the snippets she supplied. (Except I even think “dancing water” took the bird simile a bit too far.)

    If you two believe that is exactly how that gorilla would speak and think, I’m intrigued, and probably need to revisit it.

    But, (SPOILER warning):

    The ending really really bothered me. What is the likelihood that ALL of these animals end up sold to the exact same place?

    What is the likelihood that a gorilla, even *this* gorilla pulls off the whole billboard scheme?

    It just became all too cheesy for me.

    Nina, you question how she was able to pull off the emotional reaction, despite the cheesy, over-the-top language and the absurd ending, and I have to wonder if it’s just the empathy she forces us to have for the characters. As you said, Mack is neither good, nor bad. Ivan is our hero, with an awful past. Empathy. Animals. That’s how I think she pulls it off.

    I find this to be way too flawed myself, but I haven’t read enough other material yet.

  6. And by “forced empathy”, I just mean, she gave everyone very sad, complex backgrounds.

  7. @ Mr. H – my how the tables have turned Last year you were defending OKAY FOR NOW against charges of implausibilty and now you lead the charge against IVAN. I kid, of course – you’re entitled to your own levels of belief.

    For myself, I see a book in which gorillas can talk with elephants and dogs as not starting on a particularly believable front, so I’m willing to raise my suspension of disbelief quite a bit.

    The “forced empathy” question is a harder one to grapple with. Again, only speaking for myself, I came to love Ivan very early on in the book, long before we learned much about his background, and while I love animals as much as the next person, I am not one to be predisposed towards loving animal books, so your charge doesn’t ring true for my experience of the book. But I do see where you’re coming from, and I will definitely pay attention to it on my reread (if I have time to do one).

  8. Yeah, I actually detest “animal books” on general principles–one of the main reasons I stayed away from most Newbery winners when I was a kid. (Animals and boys. I tell you.) I want to point out again that Ivan doesn’t SPEAK the same way he thinks. It seemed logical to me in the story–and somewhat when I think about what a real-life gorilla might be like–that his thoughts would be more about images and sensations than words. What we have here is an attempt to put that kind of thinking into writing.

    I, too, would like to do a reread. (I’m finding this year for some reason that I’m having trouble retaining very much about the titles I’ve read–I used to read fewer new-to-me books and a lot of rereads.) But I do think this is one of the best-written books I’ve read this year.

  9. Mr. H perfectly got to my problem with the book with the “forced empathy.” I liked the book, but could never really have a connection for Ivan and even Ruby. They had sad back stories, but I never really ached for them like I did for the characters in “Wonder” or “The Mighty Miss Malone.” I thought it was good, but I’m certainly not rooting for it to win the gold

  10. I agree with Wendy, Mark and others that I found his voice believable, and that I took the wordy remark as a comment on actual speaking, versus the book is more internal. I loved the characters and did not feel that I was being forced to empathize with them because they had sad backgrounds. I also felt that those sad backgrounds were integral to both the characters makeup and to the plot of the story. Each character could only act in the ways they did because of their history and because of the ways in which that history had shaped them into who they were.

    BUT, and this is a huge but, the climax of the story jarred me completely out of the book. SPOILERS. As Mark commented, the nature of the story allowed my suspension of disbelief to be raised. I was willing to entertain the idea that a gorilla would have an idea to make picture billboard, which is profoundly symbolic and abstract. I was also willing to give a pass to the idea that such a haphazard collection of poorly drawn fragments could be intelligibly pieced together without any sort of previous knowledge. But when Ivan realized that the letters on the billboard formed words and was able to figure out how to spell home because it was the xth word in the sentence….I just couldn’t take that. Written language is incredibly abstract.

    Even with that criticism, though, I love this book and it remains one of my frontrunners, even as I gear up for some significant reading ahead of me.

  11. I know the book is based on reality, but I didn’t think Applegate was aiming for a scientifically-accurate view of how a gorilla would think. I saw his voice as a mix of human-like language and gorilla tendencies…as a fictional character in a gorilla body, based on a true story, it was completely believable. I still prefer Wonder, but I hope Ivan gets a Newbery Honor.

  12. If I can believe a spider can spell, I’ll also give the benefit of the doubt to a primate.

    What struck me about this book, and it has been a long time since I’ve read it, is how depressed I was the first hundred pages or so. Ivan and the other animal’s lives just seemed so relentlessly sad. I eventually realized that Ivan, himself, was not sad. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was content. Applegate brought in a longing for something more without coloring his current situation with utter discontent. I realized I was bringing in my broader knowledge of the world and what I wanted for Ivan and friends. Simultaneously I realized that a young reader would perceive the story more closely with Ivan’s POV.

    It’s easy to forget that often what young readers find in literature may be their first exposure to wider experiences. I’m not sure if Applegate had this in mind as she expanded Ivan’s world view, but I found it profoundly illuminating.

    I began the book with reluctance. (I don’t know that I’ve ever heard an adult admit to loving sentient animal books.) Felt brutalized for the first third of the book. By the end I found myself in the fiercely pro corner.

  13. I’m willing to take that “humans waste words” is about speech, and that the lyrical language is meant to evoke Ivans thoughts, not speech. But: the language in the beginning especially is someitmes overdone, and does NOT always evoke image or thought…is just there it seems because it’s beautiful human writing, and that seems out of character to me.

    This is a fine point, and it’s probably too early in the game to grind this one down. This is still in my top bunch.

  14. I am another reader who usually runs screaming in the other direction from animal stories. Also, as Nina pointed out, the cover had me wanting to run farther and faster.*

    Once I started reading, Ivan’s voice had me completely engaged. I didn’t have issues with the similes or wordiness. I like what Wendy said about it being an attempt to put the sensations and images a gorilla would have into written language. That was how I read his voice from the first. It will be interesting to see how it holds up to a reread. (And I really need to reread it as I barely remember the experience now so many books have followed it.)

    The ending was indeed cheesy. And I agree with Mr. H that she pulls it off through the use of empathy and animals (surly, cute, and humorous). But she pulls it off. At this point I’m really on the fence about this one. It is not a personal favorite, but I see how it could be on other’s favorite lists. Another reason it requires a reread.

    *The cover that made me want to run, had my daughter (7 and in 2nd grade at the time) salivating over it. So it works on enticing the intended audience.

  15. I really liked this book. I didn’t love it, but still felt its simplistic power throughout. That being said, the Newbery has become nearly impossible to predict. For me, last year was especially disappointing. We’ll see.

  16. I appreciated many aspects of this book. One that can’t be considered for the Newbery, but that I do want to mention is the design and illustrations. Their spareness complimented the text perfectly.

    What has stayed with me from a long-ago first reading was the lovely relationships between the animals. And also, as others have mentioned, the complex sadness of Mack. And I like the way Applegate pushes young readers to recognize that in different ways, say in Ivan’s mentioning more than once the Westerns he watches. Mack isn’t a simple bad guy as in those movies. That said, I also had to suspend disbelief regarding Ivan’s wise comments about Westerns. He seemed to understand them awfully well even given his having watch them with Mack when young. I suspect that young readers are not going to know what Westerns are actually. An interesting choice though.

    I have a complicated response to Ivan’s voice. On the one hand I like his wry sardonic commentary. The brief sentence that packs such a bunch at the end of a scene. On the other, like Nina I struggled with the language at the beginning, it did feel beyond what Ivan was, the way he had described himself at the start — not a human with many words. He did seem to have quite a few of them, especially in the case of figurative language of the sort Nina quotes. It comes up again here and there throughout the story, but once more characters are introduced, stories, told, the plot taking off, it comes (at least for me) less distracting.

    I have to say that for those who compare this to Charlotte’s Web, that this is a whole different thing. That is because of the voice. Charlotte’s Web is narrated by an omniscient third person narrator (whom always feels like White himself to me) while Ivan is narrated by the title character. Huge, huge, huge difference for me. I suspect this is not something that can be brought to the Newbery table as I believe you are only allowed to discuss the books of the year, but I did want to at least make note of it.

    I’m curious. It seems to me that the voice is key here. Would the story pack the same punch if it were told in a third person omniscient? No, right? So then the tricky thing is Ivan and how his voice works for readers. Nina’s post above helped me to return to the book and reread it completely. (I’d been trying to, but kept getting bogged down in my difficulties with the voice at the beginning — all that description from a spare speaker was hard for me.) I like the arc of the story, there are a number of truly lovely moments. Still not so sure about the voice though.

  17. I agree with Monica that voice is key here, but I agree with Jonathan that Applegate gets the voice right. I take Ivan’s complaint about humans wasting words not as an indication that his speech (or thoughts) are necessarily concise, but that the words one does use should carry as much meaning as possible. To me, that doesn’t preclude elaborate, figurative language. But then, I’ve never been a Hemingway fan either.

  18. I don’t think Ivan’s “words” are words. They’re his thoughts, his interior voice. I didn’t find that inconsistant with his statement about humans.

    ANd I thought the overall style of the book was very spare, very clean. Though I don’t think it’s a verse novel at all. It isn’t poetry, I don’t think. Just highly voiced prose.

  19. Just want to say you all are doing a great job helping me to “get” the voice. Thanks!

  20. I hadn’t thought about the simile as a contradiction. I thought the prose poem form was concise, the way a gorilla would think. I read this right after Wonder — so it came out as much more spare, and much more carefully crafted. I am impatient with verse novels. In this case, there was a good reason for it — the simple way a gorilla would express himself. It was appropriate. And the few words on a page made him feel NOT wordy, just like he said he was.

    I did believe that Ivan could put the pieces together to write a message. (Seemed much more believable than Charlotte, though I realize that’s a different thing.) He’d heard the message a million times. He was already painting. I wasn’t sure why he had to write it BIG, though.

    I also was right with her in showing how and why Ivan’s attitude changed. He was resigned to his lot. She shows us, rather than simply tells us, Ivan beginning to care, in spite of himself.

  21. I for one will weigh in on the side of Ivan as opposed to Wonder. I realize there are MANY more potential contenders, but for now… :-). I really liked Ivan’s voice, totally agree with the comments about the wordiness of human speech v. gorilla speech (as opposed to thought)–often, those who are silent outwardly are thinking quite a bit internally like Ivan seems to do.

    Sure there were some unbeliavable moments, but again–if you buy the whole construct at first, then who’s to say the animals won’t all be sold the same place? After all, after that depressing first chunk of the book, you do need a bit of a happy ending. I liked DaNae’s comparison between Ivan’s POV and a young reader’s.

    Distinctive? yes. Enough? We’ll see.

  22. Sondy: I’m so glad you brought up how she showed us Ivan changing. I went back and looked at my original review of this and that was what really stood out to me when I read. We see Ivan changing and growing.

  23. mslibrarian says:

    I have a potential solution … Or two for the initial wordiness: one, just because someone (even if that someone is a gorilla) thinks themselves “above” others does not mean that in reality he/it is so. Ivan is more like humans than he admits at the beginning. I think it actually makes for a more interesting and complex character. Or, if we think about how we act when we first meet someone else versus how we talk or act later on when we become friends with that same person: how we might be eager to explain ourselves but at the same time we do not really represent the true self … And later on, we relax and let our actions speak for ourselves. I am not sure that Applegate purposefully planned out Ivan’s voice this way but I can see a reader can interpret it as such and no longer feel puzzled about the first encounters.

  24. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The best animal stories aren’t really about animals: CHARLOTTE’S WEB is not about pigs and spiders; WATERSHIP DOWN is not about rabbits; FROG AND TOAD is not about frogs and toads; and neither is THE WIND ON THE WILLOWS. These stories are about people. And, so, too is THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Just as we see Wilbur, Charlotte, and company as people, so, too, do we see Ivan as a person with very human thoughts, emotions, and feelings.

    But there is a curious duality here because we also see Ivan as a gorilla, too, and we come to care for him as an animal. This is, partly, because of his first person narration. Clearly, I have no way of knowing how gorillas would talk, so I am willing to suspend disbelief so long as the voice is distinct, engaging, and consistent–and I believe that this one is. Another factor here is that there is a more integrated cast of humans and animals here, so it does recall CHARLOTTE’S WEB in that respect. Not that it’s eligible for the Newbery, but did anybody ever read HALF BROTHER by Kenneth Oppel? I think it tried a similar approach from a different angle (i.e. more realism, less fantasy).

  25. I often rate my enjoyment of a book by how often I think about it after I finish reading it. This is one I haven’t stopped thinking about. Yes, the package was tied up with a pretty little bow, but the characters were so well-developed that I really didn’t care. This is a children’s book, after all. I can’t wait to share this one with my students.


  1. […] The School Library Journal reviews THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Katherine Applegate […]

  2. […] an awful lot of figurative language for a self-described spare speaker, but the folks commenting on this Heavy Medal post helped me enormously with […]

  3. […] to rereading it and possibly revising my views and loving it more. Heavy Medal’s early post about the book captures my issues very clearly. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the […]

Speak Your Mind