Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

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I read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories because I wanted to read this Nobel-prize winning author and also because I remembered the imaginative premise of his magical world and wanted to experience his world as an adult. I very much enjoyed reading them again, although there are some “politically incorrect” stereotypes in them I hadn’t expected.

In these stories, Kipling gives us the fairy tales that explain to us how the things we are familiar with came to be: how the whale got his throat, how the elephant got his trunk, how the leopard got spots, and so forth. I enjoyed a retreat into a magical world. Reading Kipling’s stories encouraged made me to think of my own creative explanations for why things are as they are. Instead of taking our children literally, let’s give them stories that explain things! The creativity is fun. My favorite stories were “How the Camel Got His Hump” and “The Cat That Walked By Himself.” I liked all twelve.

Kipling wrote these stories for children. Each story is from the perspective of an adult talking to a child. They feel like folk tales—and they are all delightful and innocent creations of imagination.

As I have been doing with other children’s classics, I read these stories aloud to my infant son (eight-months-old). I didn’t think my son cares what I read him, but to my surprise, as I read him “How the Camel Got his Hump” he laughed out loud every time I said “Humph!”, which is what the cranky camel says again and again.

Some copies of Just So Stories are in a small font and appear text heavy. I think some children may be scared by dense text. On the other hand, I found a lovely copy of this book at the library—the illustrations are delightful, and the text is larger and appealing. I liked this copy and I liked the stories so much I ordered it for my nephew for his birthday. After I sent it, I found that he already owned it; nevertheless, when he unwrapped the copy I sent him, my nephew wanted to keep it as well as the one he already had because he liked it. That, to me, was a testament that form can make a difference to children.

I believe these stories appeal to children, even 100 years later. I have one concern, however: a few stories have some issues. Call the issues what you want: stereotypical, politically incorrect, insensitive, rude, racist, etc. For example, in telling the story of how the tides came to be (in “The Crab that Played with the Sea”), Kipling describes a man who is “lazy” and doesn’t want to row his boat; he begs the fisherman on the moon to put down his line and pull the sea so he won’t have to row. Kipling claims this man was the ancestor of the “Malazy” people. There are also similar stereotypical comments about women, men, and other racial groups, including the word “nigger”. None of the stereotypes or offensive words are integral to the stories and I don’t think a child will pick up on (some of) the references, but it certainly caught my attention. Such explanations are obviously as silly as how the elephant got his trunk, but they do make the stories seem dated. The copy I read was complete and unabridged; I imagine edited versions take out the offensive references.

Did you read these stories as a child, and did you notice the references that are insensitive? Have you read these stories as an adult? What do you think about the slight early-1900s stereotypes in the text? Should classics like these stories be left alone, or should editors “correct” or deftly delete the stereotypes to avoid offense, especially in books for children?

Nevertheless, I do think these stories are delightful. What do you think?

Reviewed on May 27, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I really need to read more Kipling. This book really sounds like something I’d enjoy.

    As for the politically incorrect aspects, I came across some of the same when reading E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle recently – a book published in 1907. I was surprised too. I wasn’t expecting something like that in an otherwise delightful children’s classic, but I guess it’s only natural. Those things are the reflection of social attitudes that were so prevalent at the time the authors were writing that it’s understandable that they didn’t escape them.

    I don’t think those things should be edited out, though. I think that they give children a good opportunity to discuss how social attitudes and prejudices change over time with parents and/or teachers. And I feel that editing them out would sort of be denying the past, you know?

  • @Nymeth: It is such a fun collection of stories! Like I said, I liked it so much I got it for my nephew. I agree the aspects shouldn’t be edited out–I wouldn’t want to censor the past. It just reminds me as a mother that I need to know what my kids are reading and make sure they learn values in today’s world as well. And it’s too bad that I can’t just hand it to my son and say “enjoy.”

  • I am considering working with some of these, all of which I am sure I knew as a child, for my granddaughter–am concerned about all the visual stuff she gets and want her to have a person’s voice only, with her creating the images in her mind.  I’m not a cognitive psychologist, but that HAS to be critical to the development of any fully human kind of imagination and creativity.  I love all of Kipling’s word-plays and so on, but may edit some out and do simplified versions first, to get comprehension rate up at the start.  What other good stories that would serve this kind of purpose?  Happy to share ideas, tips here.

  • Peter, Depending on how old your daughter is, I’d say don’t worry about abridging the stories! They are great and I don’t think they’d be to complicated for comprehension. For younger kids, another favorite book of mine is Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. I think Milne’s word-play is delightful.

  • We have just been reading the Just So stories. My young child loves the word play in these stories. We especially love the word play in the opening of how the whale got a throat.

    I have heard in passing that Kipling is a racist. Too be honest, I wonder if they have actually read the stories thoughtfully; simple skimming through and reacting at a word like ‘nigga’ and hollering racist. No, we do not use the ‘nigga’ these days, and should not do so because African-Americans, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and so forth have objected. In Kipling’s day, however, it was still a word that was part and parcel of everyday speech.

    Terminology aside, when I read ‘How the Leopard got is spots’, I am impressed by how the story reduces the story to just mere skin. The giraffe acquires blotches, the zebra stripes, the eland and hartebeest wild lines on their backs to evade the leopard and the Ethiopian hunter. Their camouflage succeeds in eluding these crafty hunters. Having given up the chase, the hunter and the leopard decide it is high time that they change their skin too if they are ever to catch their game.

    It is seemingly implied the hunter was once white and becomes black as to advance his hunting ability, and he then presses his fingers upon the leopard to give him his spots. There is no shame to be had here regarding the colour of skin. It is not a political act. The animals, except the leopard, and the hunter have simply advanced their abiltiy to hide from or hunt each other. Kipling’s prose, to me at least, seems aimed to induce admiration in the child for them all.

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