The One and Only Ivan Summary, Characters and Themes

“The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate is a children’s novel, first published in 2012. 

Inspired by the real-life story of Ivan, a gorilla captured from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the novel reimagines Ivan’s 27 years of captivity in a mall cage as a poignant narrative. Ivan’s character, unlike his real-life counterpart, possesses the unique ability to understand and speak human language, sharing his story through beautifully crafted, poetic vignettes.


The novel begins with Ivan recounting his long years at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where he’s known as the “One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback.” 

Although he bears the silver patch of an adult male gorilla, Ivan feels he’s not a true silverback as he has no troop to protect.

Ivan’s companions include Stella, an elderly elephant with a circus past, and Bob, a stray dog who finds solace sleeping on Ivan’s chest. 

There’s also a human connection in the form of Julia, a 10-year-old girl and the daughter of the mall’s janitor, who shares Ivan’s passion for art. It’s through their shared love for drawing that Ivan finds some relief from his monotonous life, selling his creations through the mall owner, Mack.

The arrival of Ruby, a young elephant, introduces a significant shift in the narrative. Ruby’s arrival highlights the harsh reality of their lives, as each animal has suffered due to human cruelty. Ivan, Stella, and Bob each have heartbreaking stories, contrasting the potential kindness and cruelty of humans.

Stella’s death, due to a lingering injury, brings a solemn promise out of Ivan. He vows to ensure Ruby’s safety, a commitment he takes as seriously as his identity as a silverback. 

This promise leads Ivan to confront his past, recalling his life in Africa and the traumatic experience of being brought to the U.S.

The realization that the mall is a cage, a prison of sorts, strengthens Ivan’s resolve to save Ruby, especially as Mack’s mistreatment grows. Ivan’s breakthrough in art, painting an imaginary scene of Ruby in a zoo, becomes a pivotal moment. 

It symbolizes not just his artistic growth but also his determination to change their fate.

Ivan’s plan, albeit fraught with uncertainty, eventually gains momentum when Julia discerns the meaning behind his painting. 

This leads to a series of events that culminate in media attention, public outcry, and the intervention of zoo authorities.

The story concludes with Ivan and Ruby’s relocation to a zoo. For Ivan, this transition is bittersweet. He struggles to reconnect with his gorilla instincts and establish his place in the troop. 

However, he finds solace in art, courting Kinyani, and fulfilling his promise to Stella as he sees Ruby safe and content among other elephants.

In the final chapter, a reunion with Julia and Bob brings closure and joy. Ivan, now confident in his identity as the “Mighty Silverback,” embraces his new family while cherishing the bonds formed in his extraordinary journey. 



Ivan, a captive gorilla in a mall circus, undergoes a profound transformation in “The One and Only Ivan.” Initially, he struggles with his identity as a “Mighty Silverback,” feeling isolated and disconnected from his past. 

His artistic abilities and deep empathy are awakened by his interactions with the other animals and Julia, a young girl. 

Through his journey, Ivan evolves from a passive observer to a proactive protector, ultimately playing a crucial role in securing a better future for himself and his animal friends, especially Ruby.


Stella is an elderly elephant and a wise, maternal figure in the story. Her experiences, both bitter and insightful, provide valuable lessons to the other animals, particularly Ivan and Ruby. 

Despite her past sufferings in a circus, Stella remains compassionate and caring. Her death deeply affects Ivan and inspires him to fulfill his promise to protect Ruby, emphasizing the impact of her wisdom and nurturing nature.


Ruby, a young and inquisitive elephant, brings a fresh perspective to the story. Her arrival at the mall circus serves as a catalyst for change, particularly for Ivan and Stella. Ruby’s vibrant spirit and challenging circumstances remind Ivan of his past and motivate him to take action. 

Her journey from captivity to a more natural habitat in the zoo symbolizes hope and renewal.


Bob, a stray dog, symbolizes independence and resilience. Despite his small size and rough past, he forms a close bond with Ivan, offering companionship and support. 

Bob’s skepticism towards humans contrasts with his eventual acceptance of Julia’s care, showcasing his complex character and eventual embrace of a more secure and loving environment.


Julia, the janitor’s daughter, is an empathetic and artistic young girl. Her deep understanding and appreciation of the animals, especially Ivan, play a pivotal role in changing their fate. 

Julia’s actions, driven by compassion and creativity, are instrumental in bringing attention to the animals’ plight and helping them find a better life.


George, Julia’s father and the mall janitor, is a pragmatic and caring character. Balancing his job responsibilities with his concern for the animals, George eventually plays a key role in aiding Julia’s efforts to improve the animals’ conditions. 

His journey reflects the challenges of making ethical choices in difficult circumstances.


Mack, the owner of the mall circus, is a complex character with conflicting motivations. Initially caring for Ivan as a young gorilla, his actions later reveal a prioritization of financial gain over animal welfare. 

Mack’s character highlights the moral ambiguities and ethical dilemmas involved in the human-animal relationship within the context of captivity and entertainment.

The One and Only Ivan Summary


1. The Importance of Empathy and Compassion

Central to the novel is the theme of empathy, particularly in how humans relate to animals. 

The story of Ivan and his companions underscores the need for kindness and understanding towards creatures who experience emotions much like our own. This theme is beautifully illustrated through the relationships Ivan forms, not just with his animal friends, but also with Julia, the young girl who understands his longing for a better life. 

The novel encourages readers to consider the inner lives of animals and the impact of human actions on them. 

This empathy is further heightened by the contrast between the cruelty some humans display and the kindness others offer, suggesting that compassion can triumph over indifference and maltreatment.

2. The Struggle for Freedom and the Meaning of Home

Ivan’s journey is a perfect exploration of the concept of freedom and what it means to have a home. 

Initially, Ivan’s cage in the mall is all he knows, a limited world that he accepts. However, as the story progresses, Ivan’s understanding of freedom evolves. He starts to dream of a life beyond the cage, for himself and especially for Ruby. 

The quest for freedom is not just physical but also psychological, as Ivan confronts his past and reclaims his identity as a silverback gorilla. The theme culminates in the powerful realization that home is more than a place; it’s where one feels a sense of belonging and purpose. 

For Ivan, the zoo becomes a new home where he can live more naturally as a gorilla, yet he retains the connections and memories from his life at the mall.

3. Art as a Means of Expression and Transformation

Art plays a transformative role in the story. 

For Ivan, drawing is initially a way to pass time and cope with his captivity. However, as the story unfolds, art becomes a tool for expression, communication, and ultimately, a catalyst for change. 

Ivan’s artistic journey mirrors his personal growth; he moves from drawing only what he sees to creating a visionary piece that expresses his deepest wish for Ruby’s freedom. 

This theme highlights the power of creativity to transcend barriers, convey messages, and evoke empathy. 

Ivan’s art becomes a bridge between his world and the human world, facilitating understanding and action. Through this theme, the novel celebrates the power of creativity to make a difference and change lives.

Final Thoughts

“The One and Only Ivan” is a profoundly moving tale that explores themes of friendship, freedom, and resilience. Through Ivan’s journey, Katherine Applegate beautifully illustrates the impact of empathy and the power of a promise. 

The novel, while simple in its storytelling, delves deep into the emotional world of animals, making it a poignant read for both children and adults. 

It’s a story that not only entertains but also educates about animal welfare and the importance of compassion towards all living beings.