Ivan is a silverback gorilla who has been living in captivity at the Big Top Mall for 9,857 days, or 27 years. His “domain” has three glass walls, a painting of a jungle on the fourth wall, a tire swing, a small pool, and an old TV. He spends his days drawing, watching TV, looking out into the world, and chatting with his friends. Things change at the Big Top Mall when a baby elephant named Ruby arrives. She is sweet, innocent, and kind, and Ivan will do anything to set her free.
Ivan is an easy going silverback gorilla. Having lived at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade for 27 years, he has grown accustomed to his life behind the glass. He remembers his family fondly, but doesn’t miss life in the jungle one bit. He has several friends at the mall. Stella, an older former circus elephant with an injured foot, is wise and caring. Bob, a wiry, silly, and friendly dog, loves to sleep on Ivan’s stomach at night. Julia, the human daughter of George, is the custodian at the Big Top Mall. Three times a day, Mack, the owner of the Big Top Mall, puts on a show for the visitors; many of the animals strut around and perform for the crowd. Ivan spends his days watching TV and looking out at the world around him, wondering what it would be like to be free.
When Julia joins her father at work, she sits by Ivan to do her homework. She often gives him paper and crayons so he can draw, and Mack sells them at the gift shop for $20.00 ($25.00 with a frame). When Mack realizes that Ivan isn’t bringing in as much business as he used to, he buys a baby elephant named Ruby, hoping to draw in more people. Ruby and Stella bond right away, like mother and daughter. Stella seems happier now that she has a purpose, and Ruby feels comforted by Stella as her mother figure. However, as time goes on, Stella’s infection worsens and Mack cannot afford a veterinarian. When Stella dies suddenly in the night, Ruby and the others are heartbroken. Readers learn more about Ivan’s past when he tells Ruby stories of his younger years to cheer her up. Before she dies, Stella asks Ivan to promise that he will save Ruby, that he will not let her end up like Stella; Ivan promises his dear friend that he will do just that.
When Julia gives Ivan, her fellow artist, some finger paints and lots of paper, Ivan comes up with a plan. He decides that he is going to paint a zoo for Ruby, with the word “home” on the painting, and somehow get the giant painting on the big billboard for all to see. The problem is that Ivan is a gorilla, and locked in a cage. Each night, Ivan adds to the giant painting, creating many pages that will be put together like a puzzle. When his work is complete, he relies on Julia to understand what he is trying to do, and George to make it happen. Being a fellow artist and very smart girl, Julia understands, and she and her dad hang the pictures in the middle of the night.
At first Mack is furious when he sees what has been done to the billboard, but when more and more people begin coming to the Big Top Mall, his anger turns into joy. Ivan is frustrated that his picture isn’t making its point, which is that Ruby’s home should be somewhere she can be free, or at least freer than this. After some time, people begin protesting outside of the mall, saying that the animals should be free, not confined for the entertainment of humans. Eventually, people from an animal welfare group begin visiting regularly, and end up shutting down the Big Top Mall. Ruby and Ivan are brought to a beautiful zoo where they can be with other elephants and gorillas. Ivan kept his promise to Stella in the most magical way.
Narrated by Ivan himself, this is a beautifully written story about friendship, hope, love, and perseverance. Students will absolutely fall in love with the characters, and teachers will be eager to teach the wonderful messages that the book contains. Inspired by true events, Newbery Medal winning The One and Only Ivan is a must read in all classrooms, and is sure to win the hearts of all who have the pleasure of reading it.