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Literature / The One and Only Ivan

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The One and Only Ivan is a Children's Novel by K. A. Applegate.

Ivan is a silverback gorilla who lives in the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade with his friends Stella the Elephant, and Bob, a stray dog who sometimes enters his cage. For most of his life, Ivan has lived in a cage where people can see him, and buy his drawings for a small price.

Of course, live animals can only keep people coming back for so long, and the mall employees know this. So, they bring in a new baby elephant named Ruby in the hopes of bringing in attendance. When Stella's old wound finally does her in, Stella asks Ivan to take care of Ruby and find her a better place. Ivan promises to do this... he just needs to find out how.

The book was released on January 17th, 2012. The work was adapted as a film on August 12th, 2020. A sequel, titled The One and Only Bob, was published on May 5th, 2020.

Tropes in the book (with frame):

  • Alone in a Crowd: The only gorilla in a teeming mall of humans who come and go, Ivan is literally on display and out of any of them only connects to Julia.
  • Amplified Animal Aptitude: Ivan and Stella have a partial understanding of their situation and of English that might be explained by them being long-lived and very intelligent animals, but Bob the dog seems to understand at least as much. Ruby, a much younger elephant, understands her name but not much else human language.
  • Animal Talk: There seems to be an animal language, for one, that lets elephants, dogs, and gorillas speak to each other, though Ivan says beetles never seem to talk. Bob also exchanges gossip with a rat at one point offscreen.
  • "Anger Is Healthy" Aesop: Ivan letting himself express his anger is what wins the day for him in the end. He chest-beats out of frustration and races around his cage pitching a fit, and Julia stops and reevaluates the paintings he's been trying to show her.
  • Angst? What Angst?: Ivan's insistence on focusing on the positives and not thinking at all about his old life means a cursory reading of the early chapters makes it easy to assume he really is fine with his situation. While being taken away in a crate, Ivan sensed he could only survive by letting go of his old life and taking things as they came.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: One of those things Ivan tries not to think about is the death of his twin, Tag, who wasn't as able to roll with the punches.
  • Artistic License – Animal Care: Largely averted. The true story this is a take on, the life of the real gorilla Ivan, reflects a period of time in which captive animals underwent a shift in public understanding. People began to see, for example, keeping a lone gorilla in a tiny glass-walled enclosure for twenty-seven years as unacceptable, as well as the treatment of circus animals in general. Ivan's early life with humans, his family killed so he could be shipped overseas and treated as a combination of pet and child, is also more commonly understood to be a terrible thing to do to a young ape. Where this trope does come into play some is that the health effects of being confined to small spaces and fed quite a bit of junk food with very rare vet visits aren't really shown. Stella's infected foot and Mack's neglect of her kills her, but Ivan seems to be fine. He does take quite a long time after being moved to the zoo before he can get along with the other gorillas, and neither he nor Ruby are actually released to the wild as they don't have the skills to survive.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: Mack is not entirely devoid of sympathetic moments but he is the owner of the mall and chooses to buy a new baby elephant rather than treat his old one's lingering injury. After Stella dies he starts training Ruby to perform in her place, including using what Ivan refers to as a "claw-stick" to try to intimidate her into compliance.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the end, Ruby and Ivan are taken away to a zoo and separated. Ivan has to slowly be introduced to new gorillas and learns, with difficulty how to interact with them. He gets to talk briefly with Bob on a clandestine visit and can see but not talk to Ruby, and knows that he and Ruby are still in cages, just larger and better ones. They'll never be free, but they can be happier here than in the mall.
    • This ending was actually somewhat controversial and enough people protested it that Applegate wrote an open letter, just as she had with Animorphs, saying that the book ending with sadness was deliberate and a good thing - children know about sadness in the world and have to learn how to cope with it.
  • Break the Cutie: Ruby's a good ways into this by the time she shows up. Stella's death and subsequently being coerced to perform take her further down that path, which upsets Ivan even if he was able to shrug off his own situation.
  • Character Narrator: The story is told by Ivan.
  • Commonality Connection: Julia, the daughter of the mall's night janitor, is an artist, and she and Ivan share a bit of understanding over this. Ivan also feels a similar connection with Stella, as a fellow resigned captive with a long memory and a calm, resigned disposition.
  • Constantly Curious: Ruby, as a baby elephant, asks incessant questions when not miserable, and longs to be told stories. Ivan, annoyed by this at first, finds himself remembering that he and his sister had been similar.
  • Cool Old Lady: Stella, as elephants go. Most of her life has been rather small and terrible, living in a circus before taking an injury to her foot that never healed, then being sold to the mall. However, Ivan considers her his dearest friend and loves to hear her stories, which she has many of.
  • Cope by Creating: When Ivan's making art then everything else he might be feeling goes away.
  • Cope by Pretending: How he gets by the rest of the time, resignedly focusing on tiny positives and claiming otherwise things are fine.
  • Crappy Carnival: The Big Top Mall And Video Arcade's main defining feature is the tiny circus built in. Mack puts on clown makeup and many of the animals, Stella included, perform three times a day. Hearing from Stella about the larger traveling circus she was a part of, Ivan compares this one to a weary animal unable to move on.
  • Creator In-Joke:
    • Anyone who's read Animorphs, the author's infamous Alien Invasion series, knows that the mouthless alien Andalites smile with their eyes. So, apparently, do elephants.
      She smiles sadly with her eyes, just a little, the way only elephants can do.
    • When Julia and her father George are unhappy about Ruby's treatment and wish they could do something about it, George wonders aloud "Who would I call? The elephant cops?" In an early Animorphs book, Rachel transforms into an elephant to confront an abusive circus employee, claiming she's from the "elephant police", and flings him into a tent.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: All the animals have this - Ivan's parents were killed by humans, who kidnapped him and his sister who then died. Subsequently he was purchased by Mack and treated as something between a pet and a child, then shut into a small room in the mall for decades. Stella and Ruby similarly were wild once and captured in bloody ways, then abused by humans. Ruby was chained to the floor by all four feet for twenty-three hours each day to break her spirit so she would submit to learning tricks, and when Ivan hears that he realizes that Stella must have suffered something similar. Bob was taken from his mother and flung into the road along with his littermates, who didn't roll out of the way of cars in time.
  • Death By Newberry Medal: Stella's end is foreshadowed early on by descriptions of her infected foot and Mack's unwillingness to call for a vet. There's also a mention of a previous animal, a seal, who swallowed the pennies kids threw into her pool and then died after Mack said she'd be fine. Her Last Request, death, and Ruby losing her supportive presence has Ivan shaken out of complacency and attempting to figure out a way to change their situation.
  • Fantastic Racism: Ivan dislikes chimps, seeing them as noisy, erratic, and far too silly. Early in the book he refers to some Bratty Half Pints as "slimy chimps", referring to human sweat on bare skin, and then feels bad, saying his mother wouldn't like to hear him use such language.
  • Elephants Never Forget: Ivan states that, unlike himself, Stella recalls every detail about her past.
  • Evil Poacher: Ruby says she used to live with her mother and aunts before humans killed them and took her away. Ivan doesn't like this topic because it threatens to unearth memories he tries to avoid, and when he tells her his story he elides how he got from a "perfect life" to being put in a crate with his sister. Later he does think about it and how his mother and father were killed and their hands, feet, and heads severed - and that he's aware there is an ashtray in a shop in the mall made from a gorilla's foot.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Julia is close to Ivan and Ruby, and is the only human who Bob excludes from his general cynical dismissal of the species. Her janitor father is closer to Stella and is the only human really shown to have particular affection for her.
  • Fun Personified: Mack purchases Ruby with the idea that as a baby elephant she'll be exactly this, and since people love baby animals she'll win back the crowds. While she's not devoid of fun, she is also traumatized by her recent past and dissatisfied by her circumstances.
  • Gentle Gorilla: Ivan is a very friendly and docile gorilla who develops a strong friendship with a dog and two elephants. He does have a much angrier side, but far from being a Killer Gorilla, his deeply-buried impulses are more about expressing his unhappiness and frustration, and a desire to be taken seriously and respected, than any will to do violence. As he says, anger for a silverback is an important thing reserved for protecting someone, as his father tried to protect his troop. Until Ivan starts to feel kinship and responsibility for Ruby, he has no one to protect.
  • Happily Ever Before: Ivan tries not to think about his life in the wild, preferring to all but forget it all so he can be relatively okay with his current situation.
  • Honorable Elephant: While dying, Stella starts to ask Ivan to promise to help Ruby to have a better life somehow, but stops herself as a promise is forever and she understands that his power is very limited, so it would be unfair to ask this of him. He makes the promise anyway.
  • Insistent Terminology: For most of the book Ivan insists that the small glass-windowed space he is confined to isn't a "cage", it's a "domain", the same word he uses for the territories of wild gorillas. Ruby's arrival shakes his complacency and he ends up reconsidering.
  • Interspecies Friendship: Ivan, a gorilla, is friends with Bob, a dog, and Stella and Ruby, who are elephants. He also feels a kinship with human Julia.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: At one point, Mack tries to force Ruby to move using a claw stick, only for her to hit him in the balls with her trunk afterwards.
  • Last Request: Stella's last request to Ivan is for him to get Ruby out of the mall.
  • The Mall: The main setting of the book is the Exit 8 Big Top Mall And Video Arcade.
  • Menagerie of Misery: Ivan tries not to think of the mall as this but it's increasingly evident.
  • Mischief-Making Monkey: Not a monkey, but young Ivan was seen as this. While living with Mack and his wife he broke a lot of things, less out of deliberate mischief and more often by accident, out of curiosity, or in a fit of longing for something familiar, as when he used chocolate frosting to 'paint' in the kitchen.
  • Mundane Luxury: The early chapters seem fairly happy if you ignore the subtext, as Ivan talks about his friends, all the kinds of food he likes, drawing, and television.
  • Mysterious Animal Senses: Stella knows long before Ruby arrives that a baby elephant is being brought to the mall. She can hear her, crying for her mother. Ivan and Bob can't hear her and wonder if Stella's making it up. It may be that the elephants are communicating with "infrasound", a frequency far lower than any humans can hear and which elephants can produce and hear over many miles.
  • Never Learned to Read: Unsurprisingly, none of the animals can read. However, Ivan knows about the practice and can see the mall's billboard, and knows that what's written on it is the same verbal spiel he's heard countless times - Welcome To The Exit 8 Big Top Mall And Video Arcade, Home To The One And Only Ivan. After great effort, he manages to deduce which set of letters corresponds to "home" and laboriously copies them in a painted collage depicting the zoo he saw in a commercial.
  • The Nose Knows: All three species with speaking roles pay more attention to scent than humans do. Ivan's nose would necessarily be weaker than a dog's or elephant's, but he still associates humans doing new things with a scent like rotting meat with hints of papaya.
  • Parental Substitute: Stella starts filling this role for Ruby once she's brought to the mall. She develops a very maternal relationship with her when they share a cage.
  • Playing Pictionary: Ivan thinks his art is perfectly comprehensible as portraying items within his domain. Mac and the other adult humans see it as scribbled nonsense. As a fellow artist Julia can often figure it out, but she's mystified by his collage. Her own art is something Ivan understands quite well, but confuses the other animals.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Bob is a cynical, tiny young dog who has snark for nearly every occasion, but does still genuinely care. His presence lightens the book somewhat.
  • The Pollyanna: Downplayed, but early on Ivan describes a small child bursting into tears watching him, saying "He must be the loneliest gorilla in the world!", to which Ivan wishes he could communicate that it's not so bad, you can get used to anything given enough time. He focuses on Mundane Luxury and carefully doesn't think about his past and manages to feel relatively content in his domain. Until Ruby arrives, and the prospect of a child elephant having this kind of tiny, controlled life finally forces him to acknowledge his own anger and misery.
  • Raised In Captivity: After being taken from his family, Ivan was bought by Mack, who dressed him in clothes and had him sleep in human beds and fed human foods until he got too large. This treatment has Ivan rather unsure about how to be a gorilla.
  • Road Apples: "Me-balls" are dried excrement packed into tight, throwable balls. Ivan wonders why humans never seem to carry them.
  • Saving the World With Art: Given his very limited life, Ivan's best idea for how to help Ruby is to paint a collage across many pieces of paper which shows her in the zoo he saw in a commercial, and to write HOME on it. It's difficult for humans to understand what he's portraying, but Julia and her father do put his work up on the sign and this gets plenty of attention, including from the zoo itself.
  • Significant Name Shift: As a young gorilla living in a troop of ten, Ivan was named "Mud" thanks to his interest in painting with mud over any available surface, including his mother's back. Of course he had no way of conveying his name to humans, and as part of his determined effort to not think about the past and be content in his situation he fully adopted "Ivan".
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: Ivan feels a bond with Julia, as a fellow artist. As a thoughtful and sensitive ten-year-old, she's more capable than most humans at understanding not just his art but his feelings. He still has to get angry to get her to pay enough attention to interpret his collage, and is frustrated by how long she takes to piece together the meaning of it.
  • Too Unhappy to Be Hungry: In his grief over Stella, Ivan doesn't totally neglect to eat, but he does lose a lot of his appetite.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: There was a real gorilla named Ivan living in a mall, whose life paralleled the book's story in many ways, but the specific events described in the book are all fictional.
  • Xenofiction: Ivan is a gorilla and has some understanding of humans, as fellow great apes. He has one leg up in that he has no trouble interpreting human facial expressions. Through long and patient effort and observation he's learned to understand English, but he still finds much of what they do to be mystifying and is Entertainingly Wrong about some of it. For example, he's aware at the start of the book that the mall has been getting less popular and that attracting crowds is important, so they can then forage in the shops and exchange money with Mac. He also understands that people like to watch him eat, and as an adult gorilla he eats a lot, so he resolves to try to eat even more.

The 2020 film adaptation contains examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Bob's Dark and Troubled Past from the book, where his mother and littermates all died, is not mentioned in the film. Instead he implies that he lives on the streets simply due to being abandoned by a previous owner.
  • Adaptational Heroism: The film version gives Mack a closer and healthier relationship with all the animals. Though he's still frustrated when trying to train Ruby, he isn't directly abusive, and his harshness with her is treated as an unusual occurrence brought on by the circumstances. In particular, Mack serves as a genuine Parental Substitute to Ivan, and their farewell in the ending is a sincerely bittersweet moment for both of them.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Though the film's story is mostly faithful to that of the book, it also adds a few scenes and details.
    • Mack has much more screentime than in the book and his relationship with Ivan is more fleshed out.
    • Snickers also has more screentime, and has a new relationship with Bob with her acting as a sort of Love Interest.
    • After making his promise to Stella, Ivan and Bob organise an escape attempt for Ruby and the other animals. Though they only get as far as the small forest area outside the mall before Mack catches up and brings them back.
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: In the book, Bob doesn’t seem to be the biggest fan of Snickers, making his hatred for her (and Poodles in general) clear early on. In the film, Snickers acts as Bob’s Love Interest.
  • Lighter and Softer: The film tones down and removes most of the characters more miserable backstories to mere mentions, and is much less cynical about the cruelty of humans. The film also has a greater emphasis on humour than the book did.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the book, Ivan mentions that the mall used to have a sea lion who was kept in a pool enclosure, which also doubled as a wishing well for children. The sea lion one day got bored or hungry and ate a large amount of the coins in the pool. She got sick and died. In the film, the sea lion is alive, as well as male where the book's sea lion was female.

Alternative Title(s): The One And Only Ivan