Pages 1-31 Summary


Ivan is a gorilla.


He is sometimes called "the Freeway Gorilla...The Ape at Exit 8...The One and Only Ivan, Mighty Silverback."


Ivan can understand human words, which is not the same as understanding humans. He was able to achieve this skill because he is patient, unlike humans.

"how i look"

Ivan used to be a wild gorilla. He strikes a majestic figure, "four hundred pounds of pure power." His back is adorned with "a snowy saddle of fur, the uniform of a silverback."

"the exit 8 big top mall and video arcade"

Ivan lives in a human habitat called the "Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade," located on I-95, the main north and south highway on the United States' East Coast. At the Mall there is a carousel, and circus shows at two, four, and seven daily. Stella, an elephant, lives in the domain next to Ivan's. She and Bob, a dog, are Ivan's best friends.

Ivan's domain is surrounded by three glass walls, and a fourth, which is made of cement, and sports a jungle scene. At the bottom corner of one of the glass walls is a small hole, made by Ivan with a baseball bat when he was six. From his domain, Ivan can see a giant sign at the edge of the freeway. On the sign is a picture of Mack, the boss at the Mall, dressed in his clown clothes. Stella, standing on her hind legs, is also depicted, as is a fierce, angry creature who is supposed to be Ivan. Ivan thinks the picture is inaccurate, because he is never angry. Silverback gorillas use anger "to maintain order and warn [their] troops of danger," but in Ivan's domain, there is no one to protect.

"the littlest big top on earth"

Everyday, the denizens of the Big Top Mall perform a show called "The Littlest Big Top on Earth." Mack, dressed as a clown, pedals a tiny bike, and Stella parades along with a dog named Snickers on her back. After the show, the humans who have come to watch "forage" through the gift shop for things like balloons, T-shirts, and caps.

Ivan does not do any tricks.



(The entire section is 924 words.)

Pages 32-59 Summary

"a plan"

Business at the Big Top Mall has been bad lately, and Mack is perturbed. Ivan thinks that if he could learn some new tricks, it might help the situation. Ivan knows that humans enjoy watching him eat; he resolves to eat more so that visitors will come and Mack will be happy again.


Bob tells Ivan that the lack of visitors at the Big Top Mall has nothing to do with the gorilla's appetite.

Bob is a stray; "he does not have a permanent address." He is "tiny, wiry, and fast," and he prides himself that he can live by his own wits. Bob and his siblings were tossed onto a freeway when they were but a few weeks old. Only Bob survived.

Bob slips into Ivan's domain through the hole in the glass wall. He likes to sleep on the big gorilla's belly, and Ivan treasures the comfort of his warmth and company.


Ivan wonders why Bob does not want a real home. Bob replies, "Everywhere is my home." He relishes being wild and untamed.


Mack brings Ivan a yellow crayon and ten pieces of paper, muttering, "Time to earn your keep, Picasso." Ivan does not know who Picasso is, but he knows what to do with the materials. Scanning his domain for something yellow, he spies a banana, and draws it. To Mack, it is just a scribble, but it will suffice. Ivan makes ten pictures of bananas.

"three visitors"

Three singularly disagreeable visitors come to the Big Top. A boy spits at Ivan's window, and a girl throws pebbles at him. Ivan is glad that the glass is there.

"my visitors return"

The visitors return later; they mock the gorilla and throw more pebbles at him. Ivan throws a "me-ball" at them; now he wishes that the glass was not there.


Ivan is sorry for the way he acted toward the children.


Julia is a child, but she is not like the rude visitor children. She comes to sit by Ivan's domain every night while her father, the "weary man" named George, cleans the mall. Julia's mother used to...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

Pages 60-89 Summary


Change is in the air: a new resident is coming to the Big Top Mall.


Stella says the new animal will be a baby elephant. Even though Ivan hears nothing, Stella can hear the creature crying for her mother.


Though her foot is angry, red, and swollen, Stella does not rest, but instead tells Ivan and Bob a story while they await the new visitor. It is about Jambo, a silverback gorilla who lives at a zoo. Stella explains that a good zoo is a large, safe place with humans "who don't hurt."

One day, a young boy visitor falls into Jambo's domain. Keeping his troops a respectful distance away, the silverback goes over to the motionless child and strokes him gently to see if he is all right. The humans watching are terrified, certain that the gorilla will crush the boy, but Jambo retreats respectfully so that rescuers can retrieve him. The boy is not hurt.


Ivan wonders why the humans in Stella's story assumed that Jambo would hurt the boy.

Bob asks why Ivan and Stella are not in a zoo, which sounds so much nicer than the cramped and seedy Big Top Mall. Smiling sadly, Stella answers, "Just lucky, I guess."


That afternoon, a big truck delivers a baby elephant, just as Stella predicted. Mack, certain that the new addition, Ruby, will improve business, is jubilant. Ruby, however, is terrified, and will not come out of the truck. Mack becomes impatient, angering Stella, who knows what a dreary, stifling life awaits the newcomer.

"stella helps"

Stella's help is enlisted to calm Ruby and bring her into the elephant domain. While the noble animal, limping painfully, complies, Mack brags that Ruby had been shipped from Africa only a short time before, by the struggling circus...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Pages 90-120 Summary

"elephant jokes"

Ruby wakes up early, and does not want to wake Stella, because she knows the big elephant's foot has been hurting her. Like any child, however, Ruby is bored, so Ivan tells her elephant jokes and draws her some pictures. Ruby is completely impressed with Ivan's artistic ability, and laughs a "happy, lilting...elephant laugh" that delights the gorilla. When Stella awakens, Ruby tells a joke of her own; it is a good one, and Stella strokes the little elephant tenderly.


Stella has never had babies of her own, but Ivan tells her she would have been a good mother. This pleases Stella, but she is not sure that Ivan is right. Stella says that the hardest part of being a parent is keeping one's babies safe from harm. Looking around at the iron bars that define the elephant domain, Stella expresses doubt that she would have been able to fill the role of protector very well.

"the parking lot"

Mack notes happily that the parking lot is uncharacteristically full; business has picked up since the acquisition of Ruby. Looking out at the big sign on the highway, Ivan has to admit that the picture of Ruby, with its little red hat and curly tail, is "rather cute." Ivan wishes that Mack would add a red hat and a curly tail to his picture as well, so that visitors would be more inclined to stop by and see him too.

"ruby's story"

Ruby is bored again that afternoon, and decides to tell "a real live true" story. She recalls a time, back in her natural home, when she fell into a big hole full of water, and was rescued by a village full of kind humans. Bob is incredulous; he does not believe that humans would do such an uncharacteristically nice thing, but Stella says that they are "an unpredictable species," and "can surprise you sometimes." Bob is unconvinced, but Ruby concurs, pointing out that though...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

Pages 121-147 Summary

"once upon a time"

Ruby grieves all night, and though Ivan wants to comfort her, he does not know how. The little elephant asks him to tell a story about when he was young, but he has a singularly hard time recalling the past. Hearing Ruby's heart-breaking sobs as she tries to sleep, however, spurs Ivan to put forth uncommon effort into remembering. He slowly realizes that he has a story after all, and begins it with the words, "Once upon a time there was a gorilla named Ivan."

"the grunt"

Ivan was born in central Africa. He had a twin sister named Tag, who loved to chase him around the rain forest. Ivan and Tag would run and jump onto their "unsuspecting...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Pages 148-179 Summary

"a new beginning"

Mack does not come around for two days, and when he returns, he says nothing about Stella. Instead, in a surprisingly upbeat manner, he declares it is time for "a new beginning." Mack loops Ruby's feet with rope, and attaches a heavy chain to her neck; he is anxious to teach her some new tricks to bring in more customers. Mack works with Ruby all afternoon and into the evening, until finally, exhausted, the baby elephant stops, and refuses to move.

George, who by that time has arrived with Julia for his clean-up duties, suggests that Mack should call it a day, but the boss is determined. He stomps off to his office and returns carrying a long stick with a "gleaming hook" at...

(The entire section is 897 words.)

Pages 180-208 Summary

"going nowhere"

Ruby continues her training each day, endlessly plodding around the ring, "going nowhere." A few more visitors come to the Big Top, but not enough, and Mack threatens to feed the animals less, to save money. Ivan continues to paint, but although he has an idea in his head about what he wants to express, he cannot seem to get it right. He begins to believe that his plan is "stupid."

"bad guys"

One day, Mack discovers one of Ivan's hidden paintings. The boss is impressed with the work, and estimates that it will go for "thirty...maybe even forty" dollars at the gift shop. Turning Ivan's TV on to a Western, Mack tells the gorilla that if the painting...

(The entire section is 906 words.)

Pages 209-237 Summary

"puzzle pieces"

After a long time, Ivan grows quiet. Julia knows that something must be really wrong for the gorilla to act this way, but she does not know what it is. As she and George retrieve the scattered pieces of Ivan's puzzle, Julia suddenly freezes. Arranging a few of the pages with her artist's eye, she discovers first an "H" and then an "E."

Julia is beginning to get the idea that Ivan's individual paintings are part of a giant picture. In addition to the letters, she discerns an eye, and a tree. Ivan is gratified and hopeful, but a little dismayed as well. The process of interpreting his message is taking a lot longer than he thought it would.


(The entire section is 819 words.)

Pages 238-271 Summary


The lady in the white coat leads Ruby to the box, and each time the elephant touches it, she makes a clicking sound with a metal instrument and gives her a piece of carrot. Later, Ruby asks Ivan why she did that, and the gorilla responds, "I think [the lady] wants you to go inside." Ivan explains that the box is Ruby's "way out" of the Big Top Mall; the picture on it indicates that it belongs to a zoo. To Ivan's surprise, Ruby is not excited by the prospect of being taken to a better place; she just wants to stay with him, Bob, and Julia. Ruby says the Big Top is her home, but Ivan disagrees, reminding her that it is "[her] prison."

"poking and prodding"


(The entire section is 914 words.)

Pages 272-300 Summary


Ivan watches the gorilla family every day from his window. He observes the way they live—playing, grooming, and sleeping. The gorilla family stares back at him, and Ivan wonders if he is as fascinating to them as they are to him.


One of the females, Kinyani, attracts Ivan's attention. She is terrifying and beautiful.


The humans lead Ivan to a door that will allow him to join the other gorillas, but he is not ready. He will try again tomorrow.


Ivan thinks about Ruby, and wonders if she has already walked through a door similar to the one that...

(The entire section is 871 words.)