Working on IVAN: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla



 [IVAN:The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate (The One and Only Ivan) tells of a western lowland gorilla who was captured as an infant from his home in the Congo and brought to the United States. He quickly outgrew the home he was staying in and was confined to a 14′ x 14′ enclosure where he spent his next 27 years as a shopping mall attraction. Because of the efforts of people who felt this was an inhumane way for an animal to be treated he was eventually moved to the Atlanta Zoo, where he lived his remaining life amongst other gorillas, trees and grass.]

I was thrilled and honored to be asked to work on this book. Of course I wanted to, but I knew if I did it would be heartache, and a tall challenge. Katherine wrote her original novel, The One and Only Ivan, in Ivan’s voice. My job for this true picture book story was to make us see with his eyes.

Time was short and my editor, Anne Hoppe, had concise artistic direction. “I envision a lot of white space.” That idea appealed to me, for aesthetic and practical reasons. For such a tight deadline to work I couldn’t be occupied with time consuming details. Easy.

Wrong. “A lot of white space” does not equal easy. Less is more, but sometimes less is just less. “A lot of white space” means carefully considered details, and the fewer the better. This would demand a different kind of time, the kind with which you can slowly shape each idea. The kind of time I didn’t have. But, time was a practical problem to solve, and I was confident I could figure that out. Without question, the much larger challenge for me lay ahead.

The struggle for me was how to portray Ivan as a real being. Most, if not all, of the characters I work with are fictional. I had a stylistic approach in mind but that involved some abstraction and skewing. Would that be the right note for Ivan or the story? In my work the line between cartoon and reality shifts from book to book. I let the story tell me where my drawings should be on that line.


My Ivan studies started far on the cartoon left but kept drifting to the real right. Working in a realistic style didn’t seem to fit with the minimal direction in my mind. I had doubts. I went back to Katherine’s story. It was a true one about a real gorilla, and from what I gathered, a much loved and respected being. I owed it to Ivan to get his portrait just right.

I had to get to know Ivan in a few short months. The other bit of direction Anne gave me was that she was more interested in seeing emotion rather than historical details (for example, she didn’t want to see what kind of crate was used to ship Ivan to America rather than how Ivan felt inside that crate.) Reading Katherine’s book, The One and Only Ivan, helped me think how Ivan might have thought. But how could I possibly know what Ivan, and other gorillas, really felt like?

The most essential background work I could do was to observe live gorillas, which I did at the Bronx Zoo. My friend, Lenore, and I spent a day at the Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit watching these magnificent animals. Though it doesn’t compare to observing gorillas in their natural habitat, watching how gorillas moved was essential to understanding their body language and how they interact. 


I don’t know how gorillas feel but watching them makes me feel like I do. I look into a gorilla’s expressive eyes and I think we understand each other. Maybe on some levels we do but I wonder if I give a lot of my own human meaning to their expressions. It must be hard not to but I couldn’t risk drawing my gorillas with human qualities.

My gorilla studies got larger and larger so that eventually my studio became filled with almost-life sized gorillas. I taped them to my doors and walls so that I could sit face to face with them.  ImageSadly this was the closest I was to get to the real Ivan. These were just drawings, and not all of them were of him. I couldn’t really “know” Ivan but I would use all the tools I had to make him real.

The moment of authenticity for me was when I watched a video of Ivan stepping out onto grass for the first time since being removed from his home in Africa. I saw in his gorilla eyes what it must have looked and felt like through his eyes.

I’ve heard people describe how they feel a connection to gorillas when they have made that eye-to-eye contact. This was the moment for me when I knew what Ivan must have been feeling. My story is different from Ivan’s but I know those emotions — fear, confusion, resignation, and a glimmer of hope that there were good times ahead. I found the authenticity I was afraid I would never feel.

Image  nice poster, happy artist


4 Responses to “Working on IVAN: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla”

  1. Great work, Brian. You nailed the style for the gorillas.The subtle color works really well, too.

    • Thanks David. Have you ever drawn a gorilla’s face? Is was fun and challenging for me. Mouths especially!

  1. 1 Watch the new book trailer for Ivan, the nonfiction picture book by Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate and illustrator G. Brian Karas!
  2. 2 Why Do You Love Ivan the Shopping Mall Gorilla? Join the Conversation at #WeLoveIvan

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