A blog about books, writing, and anything else word-centric.
Friday, March 30, 2012
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle
Book got me to thinking about the time I sat with a
married couple at a Denny’s on the outskirts of Baylor University’s
campus late one night after a drinking binge, eating pancakes. At the
table next to ours sat four Baylor students. One of the girls, maybe
19 or 20 years old, held open the children’s book Where
the Wild Things Are. She read it aloud to her
boyfriend while he squirmed in his booth, his eyes darting from his
lap to the diners sitting nearby. He was clearly uncomfortable.
read the book when I was a child, and the story, coupled with the
haunting illustrations, had left an impression on me. My friend Kent,
however, began speaking the lines from the book right along with her.
I was impressed. So was the girl. She stopped reading and turned.
“You have it memorized!”
blushed. “One of my favorites.”
wife squeezed his arm, smiled back, and whispered to him, “That’s
not all he knows by heart.”
you roll your eyes and wonder why adults would read children’s
books, there’s something you should know. Where
the Wild Things Are notwithstanding, children’s
books are very often more sophisticated than your average adult
novel. Don’t believe me? Forget the film versions and Disney’s
rendition and read Lewis Carroll’s Alice
In Wonderland. It’s highly philosophical. How about C.S.
Lewis’ children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia? Lewis was an
English professor and a scholar. That series is full of truths many
adults still don’t grasp, not to mention the allegory and
sophisticated themes that you generally won’t find in paperback
novels. True, there are plenty of children’s books that teach
nothing, stories that never consider or explore anything an eleven
year old hasn’t already been taught. But this, incidentally,
describes many novels for grown-ups, too.
children’s books often involve things like talking animals, but so
does George Orwell’s Animal
Farm, and that’s clearly not for children. Absurd
themes, elementary grammar, simple concepts, and childish
characterizations aren’t confined to the grade school or young
adult sections of your local bookstore. In short, the distinction
between children’s tales and novels for grown-ups is often tenuous
don’t think I ever saw Disney’s rendition of The
Jungle Book, but the book itself is excellent. Each story
is self-contained, though a few involve the same characters. The
first five of the seven stories are brilliant. And while the stories
are all in prose, at least one poem precedes each tale. One of my
favorites began “Tiger-Tiger”, which is in Q & A form:
of the hunter, hunter bold?
the watch was long and cold
of the quarry ye went to kill?
he crops in the jungle still
is the power that made your pride?
it ebbs from my flank and side
is the haste that ye hurry by?
I go to my lair to die
poem “Seal Lullaby” precedes the story “The White Seal”:
Hush ye, my baby, the night is behind us,
black are the waters that sparkled so green.
moon, o’er the combers, looks downwards to find us
rest in the hollows that rustle between.
billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
weary wee flipperling curl at thy ease!
storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
in the arms of the slow-swinging seas!
the Afterward, Jane Yolen quotes C.S. Lewis: “I am almost inclined
to set it up as a canon that a children’s story that is only
enjoyed by children is a bad children’s story.” Wikipedia’s
page on Children’s Literature makes it clear just how unclear the
distinction really is. Did you know some children’s books were
written not just for children but
actually by children? Simply put, categories are
prefer to label books based on the writer’s craft, his or her
command of the language, whether the characters are engaging, how
moving or insightful the telling is. Of course if books were
categorized according to those standards, we’d find out which were
truly juvenile. After all, if it’s true you can’t judge a book by
its cover, why should we judge a book by the category stamped on its