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Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Are you a person of Infinite-Resource-And-Sagacity? Sounds good that, doesn't it? I'm not sure I'm a person of Infinite-Resource-And-Sagacity, not like the mariner who hitched a lift home to England from a hungry whale and in doing so made sure that hungry whales would eat only small fish and never men or boys or little girls, but I'm pretty sure I'd like to be. You might like to be the Djinn In Charge Of All Deserts because he can make extremely good magic. You might even like to be Parsee Pestonjee Bomonjee because he wears a rather sexy hat and eats only cakes which are two feet across and three feet thick (I wouldn't mind being the Parsee, either).

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

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Category: For Sharing
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Delightfully droll, outrageous and silly, these folk tale retellings by Rudyard Kipling may be old, dated even, but they will never be out of date. They are best for reading aloud to little ones of about three up until they're less little ones of about eight. The lovely thing about them is that you will enjoy them as much as they will.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 128 Date: November 2004
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd
ISBN: 1844287327

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You do know what we're talking about, don't you? You do know the answers to some of the most important questions of all? You know how the whale got his throat? You know how the leopard got his spots? You know how the rhinoceros got his wrinkly, wrinkly skin? You know how the first letters were made? Why the cat walks by himself? Well, if you don't then you're missing out.

Among the simplest of myth stories are the why stories or pourquoi tales. These are stories about how things came to be. Why does night follow day? Why does spring follow winter? And how did that leopard get his spots? Most cultures across the world include why stories in their oral traditions. Different to the why stories, but still part of oral story-telling tradition, is a set of Indian folk tales known as the Jatakas. Jataka is a Buddhist name for the stories concerning the rebirths of Buddha who was reincarnated many times in the form of many different animals until he became at last Buddha, the Enlightened One. I suppose these Jataka stories, then, are really about a man living briefly as an animal, consorting with other animals, and deriving from these other lives important moral lessons about life as a human being. I know that must all sound terribly boring but I think the oral tradition is an important one, I think it connects each generation with the generations that came before and I think it helps us all connect with our world in many, many ways. So I wanted to nag you about pourquoi tales and the Jatakas because I think Rudyard Kipling felt like me about these things and they are the traditions he drew upon when he wrote the Just So Stories. So humour me just for a moment longer.

Living in India for many years and thus familiar with the forms and patterns of these traditional forms of story-telling, Kipling wrote this, his own collection of explanatory tales, in a gloriously florid and very, very funny imitation of the old way. "How The Whale Got His Throat" and "How The Leopard Got His Spots", those stories I told you about above start out seriously, with great solemnity, as if a lesson is about to begin, and they end with an abandoned but logical kind of nonsense that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland. Another super one and a great favourite of ours is "The Elephant's Child". This story explains how the elephant's "blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot" grew to be the long trunk we see today. It was all because of the "'satiable curtiosity" of the Elephant's Child who, after innumerable spankings for never, ever shutting up, ran away to seek knowledge by the banks of "the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River". I'll tell you some of the things he asked:

"He asked his tall aunt, the Ostrich, why her tail-feathers grew just so, and his tall aunt the Ostrich spanked him with her hard, hard claw. He asked his tall uncle, the Giraffe, what made his skin spotty,, and his tall uncle, the Giraffe spanked him with his hard, hard hoof. He asked his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, why her eyes were red, and his broad aunt, the Hippopotamus, spanked him with her broad, broad hoof; and he asked his hairy, hairy uncle, the Baboon, why melons tasted just so and his hairy uncle, the Baboon spanked him with his hairy paw. And STILL he was full of 'satiable curtiosity!"

That elephant child will remind you, and any children listening of their own "'satiable curtiosity", don't you think? How many impossible-to-answer questions have YOU been asked this week? I hope you didn't do any spanking though, for if you did you'll be sure to get your comeuppance, just as the insatiably curious elephant child gave his naughty spanking relatives their comeuppance after he visited the terrifying crocodile on the bank of the Limpopo river and returned with a trunk. Soon, all the elephants have trunks and there isn't any spanking any more. Quite right too. If you want to find out just how the elephant child did get his trunk from the crocodile you'll just have to get the book I'm afraid, or I'll be quoting all night. And anyway, much as I'd like to sit here finding the best bits and typing them all out for you, it really would be a naughty thing to do because these are stories to be read aloud. They are cadenced, rhythmic, and full of handsome, high-sounding words which are both mouth-filling and ear-delighting. Children soon catch on to the grandiloquent style and the absurd meanings behind the mock serious tone and they laugh with delight.

Children love folk tales just as they love humour. But above all they recognize and appreciate the rhythmic cadence and bright colour of stories that form part of an oral tradition older almost than anything. If you watch little ones you will see them using rhythm constantly; from the chanting of nursery rhyme refrains to the intricate counting games they love to play for hours on end. They accept calmly magical events and talking beasts in stories just as they often invent imaginary companions. Kipling, a doting father, and a man familiar with Indian myth and legend and oral tradition knew these things I think, and crafted for his own children the Just So Stories; his own take on and humorous pastiche of the oldest of the pourquoi tales. Today, he's known by adults as a staunch colonialist and reactionary, which he was, and is often disapproved of for this, but I think that's a shame. You try reading these droll little tales aloud to your children. Feel them come alive as you read, watch your children laugh and roll their eyes: you'll see what I mean.

For more silly stories told in a humorous and grandiloquent way, try A Children's Treasury of Spike Milligan.

Booklists.jpg Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling is in the Top Ten Classics of Children's Literature.

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