Why Doesn’t Anyone Remember the Just So Stories Anymore?
I was in the library the other day with an editor friend I know and we started discussing The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Kipling is a difficult fellow to get a grasp on. The heart and soul of colonialism in India, he also happened to be a darn good writer. Now I can take or leave The Jungle Book, but The Just So Stories . . . those were important to me as a kid.
For me, it was all about the language. Listen to this line from “The Elephant’s Child” as your example:
“Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, ‘Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out’.”
Sentences such as this demand that a tongue speak with authority and presence. Try this next one from “The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo”:
“Still ran Dingo–Yellow-Dog Dingo–hungrier and hungrier, grinning like a horse-collar, never getting nearer, never getting farther; and they came to the Wollgong River.”
Almost like a song to me. Even when I couldn’t remember the words as an adult, I could remember the rhythm of this sentence, and could find it easily when I looked at the story again.
So I wonder to myself, why do The Just So Stories rarely get reprinted? And why do they almost never get new illustrations? The most recent edition I find in my library system is the lovely new Puffin Classics one with an introduction from Jonathan Stroud (who writes of hearing the book, “It is like listening to the chanting of a spell.”). This I own, so I pluck it from my shelf. I see that it contains Rudyard Kipling’s own original illustrations (I forgot he was an artist as well) though like other Puffin Classics all the money goes into the Introduction and the cover and very little into the pen and ink reproductions of the illustrations, which are rather pale and spotty.
I look back a little further in time and see that in 2004 Candlewick put out A Collection of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, with each story bearing the mark of a different illustrator. Peter Sis, Jane Ray, and Satoshi Kitamura all contributed, which is pleasing. Before that, back in 1996 Barry Moser did one as well.
A couple thoughts immediately occur. First off, is it not strange that Jerry Pinkney has never illustrated a book of Just So Stories? I don’t say this simply because it would be nice to see him do so, but rather because he appears to be a bit of a Kipling fan. How else to explain why he did not only The Jungle Book but also Rikki-Tikki-Tavi?
That’s one thought. The other is that there must be something offensive in these tales that prevents them from getting published as frequently as Kipling’s other books. So I start flipping through that newly found Puffin Classic book to sniff out the offense. My results:
How the Whale Got His Throat – No problems here.
How the Camel Got His Hump – All clear.
How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin – Some mention is made of the fact that the Parsee has a hat from which “the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour.” Fairly minor.
How the Leopard Got His Spots – Well this is a bit trickier, but it’s interesting. It’s about how both an Ethiopian and a Leopard determine the best camouflage for hunting and decide to change the color of their skin to match their surroundings. Thus the Ethiopian changes to a “fine new black skin”. It’s a rather interesting take on the matter. The skin is seen as a beautiful choice, which is surprising considering the source (or, for that matter, books like Dr. Doolittle that would try to include characters that wanted just the opposite).
The Elephant’s Child – No problems here, unless you dislike tales of spanking. Then you’re in trouble.
The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo – All clear.
The Beginning of the Armadillos – A-okay.
How the First Letter Was Written & How the Alphabet Was Made – These two go together and they’re both just fine.
The Crab That Played With the Sea – Fine and fish hair.
The Cat That Walked By Himself – Sublime.
The Butterfly That Stamped – So THAT is where I heard this story oh so many years ago! Well, there’s some polygamy, but I love how it clarifies, “He didn’t really want nine hundred and ninety-nine wives, but in those days everybody married ever so many wives, and of course the King had to marry ever so many more just to show that he was the King.” More objectionable is the point of the story, which basically boils down to “don’t harp at your husband, you harpy”.
You could call the pictures that Kipling drew for the stories a potential source of offense, definitely. For example, the story of How the Leopard Got His Spots says, “The Ethiopian was really a negro and so his name was Sambo.” Ack! Fortunately the text of the story says no such of a thing, so a simple removal of the images and their captions solves the problem. Just call in some great illustrators and the problem is solved.
So really, I don’t see why these stories aren’t republished more often. Even as picture books they’d make a certain amount of sense. Does anyone else have any fond memories / deep seated aversions to these tales of Kipling, R.?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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