I found a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories in a book shop in Sicily, and I decided to buy it because of memories of my mother reading to me from The Jungle Book when I was a child. I had a particular fascination for the exploits of Rikki-tikki-tavi, the mongoose, who fought the cobras, Nag and Nagaina.
Kipling was born in India in 1865. From the age of seven until he was twelve, he and his younger sister were placed in the care of a couple who boarded English children whose parents lived overseas. In 1877 he went to United Services College, Devon, but since he had no prospect of admission to Oxford, he returned to India where he became assistant editor of a local newspaper in Lahore. He live subsequently in England and America. He took an outspoken role in politics, being anti-German and anti-communist; his son, John, eighteen, was killed at the battle of Loos in 1915. Kipling wrote novels, many short stories and poetry, and was the most popular English writer for several decades. He was the first English-language writer to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1907. He died in 1936 at the age of 70.
The copy of Just So Stories I bought, while a paperback, appears to be a unique edition as it includes a lengthy introduction by Lisa Lewis, a chronology of Kipling’s life, and in addition to the Just So Stories themselves, there are pen and ink illustrations and related poems by the author himself, as well as explanatory notes on unfamiliar words or phrases appearing in the text.
The title of the book is derived from Kipling’s instruction that the book should be read to children ‘just so’, meaning that a particular emphasis and tone of voice should be used to best present each story. The stories are intended to be personalised as the reader addresses their audience as ‘Best Beloved’.
Some of the stories are familiar: How the Camel Got His Humps, How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin, How the Leopard Got His Spots, but there are less well-known tales as well. All of the stories are intended to appeal to children. There is a contrariness and a secretiveness about them that is intended to appeal to children. The illustrations with their explanatory notes would certainly capture the childish imagination.
As remarkable and captivating as these stories are, I find it difficult to imagine that they would generally be popular with today’s children, as the vocabulary (which is not childish) and the settings would seem somewhat obscure.
It seems to me that The Jungle Book is an excellent (and better) choice for children.