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The One and Only Ivan – Explore emotions and empathy in KS2

What's included?

Three-page PDF featuring cross-curricular activity ideas for KS2

Key Stage



Years 3-6

Explore the complexity of being human, emotions and empathy with Katherine Applegate’s moving book, The One and Only Ivan. This PDF is full of cross-curricular activities related to the book.

What is The One and Only Ivan about?

Every child wants to be Ivan’s friend. He’s a philosopher, an artist, a storyteller… and a gorilla. A gorilla without a real home. Above all, Ivan is a gorilla with a sense of honour.

If he makes a promise to a friend then he keeps the promise, no matter what the obstacles, no matter what the cost.

Taken from their mother and father as babies, Ivan and his twin sister Tag are put in a crate and shipped across the Atlantic to live with an unscrupulous circus manager in the United States.

After bringing him up like a human child, the circus manager puts Ivan to work in a circus in a shopping mall as a curiosity. He lives in a glass habitat and spends his time throwing dung balls, watching TV and painting.

Ivan has learned to accept the cards life has dealt him. However, he longs for people to understand him and to be the gorilla he was born to be.

Katherine Applegate gives him a voice with calm dignity even though his circumstances are terrible. It’s when Ruby, a new young elephant, arrives at the circus that his life changes.

Honouring a promise made on the deathbed of his elderly elephant friend, he sets out to ensure Ruby has a better life and can live in freedom in a zoo. But how? His art and his intelligence will show him the way.

Is it a true story?

It is a true story – even though, as Stella the elephant would say, some of the facts are confused. Applegate was moved when she saw reports about the real Ivan on TV.

Why is it a good book for KS2?

The story gently unfolds, drawing the young reader in with short chapters, economic, stripped-back literary language and fully rounded characters.

The relationships are compassionate and complicated and leave plenty of room for children to explore emotions and empathise.

It is moving and enables children to explore together the complexity of being human, to ask questions and to be inspired. The book, like Ivan’s real life, has a happy ending.

Johanna Robinson is an English lead at Weeke Primary School, Winchester. Jonathan Rooke is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Education at the University of Winchester.

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The One and Only Ivan – Explore emotions and empathy in KS2
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