Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Aug 10, 2015

In a brave moment, I reserved a copy of this book at the library. I've been wanting to expose my kids to some classical literature, but I admit, I was a little nervous to dive into this one. I worried that they'd get lost in the unfamiliar vocabulary, that they wouldn't be able to follow the storyline, that they'd beg me not to read it.

But, as is so often the case, they completely surprised me. (And if I'm being completely honest here, they enjoyed it far more than I did.) It's true that there were moments where they lost their focus but never for long enough to lessen their overall enjoyment of the story.

As I contemplated my many choices in classic children's literature, I purposely selected Just So Stories because I felt like the short story format would lend itself well to my young little audience. The stories are set at the beginning of the world. Each one is self-contained and explains how the world and the animals in it came to be "just so." There's a story about how the camel got his hump and another story about how the elephant's nose came to be a long trunk. There's a story about the creation of the alphabet and another one about the armadillo and his armored plates.

There's something rather addicting about a collection of stories. Obviously, it's not the plot itself that makes you keep coming back for more since each story's beginning, middle, and end can be read in one sitting. No, it's the pull of a new story, the unknown, the unveiling of some interesting details. Every time we'd finish one chapter, my kids were impatient to know what the next one was called and what it was going to be about. It was a book that was easy to put down when we came to the end of the story but exciting to pick up again when it was time.

Now, as I alluded at the beginning of this review, my impression of and feelings toward the book were very different from my kids. I must confess that I enjoyed it the most when we got to the end of it. I was so worried about my kids not liking it, but then it was actually me who had such a hard time making it through each chapter.

I blame two things for this response:

First, it was one of those books that is really difficult to read aloud. I was constantly tripping over names like Tegumai and Suleiman-bin-Daoud and Pusat Tasek. When I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing something correctly or not, I feel a little ruffled the entire time (and it didn't help that we're also reading Story of the World aloud right now, which also has a lot of difficult names, so it felt like I wasn't doing any reading aloud where I didn't have to be on my toes the entire time).

And second, it didn't keep me engaged. In between readings, I wouldn't give it a single thought with the consequence that when I came back to it, I couldn't remember a single thing about what we'd last read. This usually wasn't too problematic since I didn't really need to remember details in order to move onto the next story. But when we were reading "The Cat That Walked By Himself," we had to stop in the middle of it, and we didn't come back until the next day. I honestly couldn't remember anything about it. So I started skimming while mentioning little details to my kids: "The Man and his wife tamed the dog and the horse and the cow . . . and the cat made a bargain with the woman . . . three words of praise, and what would happen?" I was rather shocked when Aaron and Max spouted off the terms of the bargain exactly, and I was still trying to remember the most basic details from the story (ironically, "The Cat That Walked By Himself" actually ended up being my favorite story of the bunch).

However, at the same time that I was muddling my way through the difficult names and forgetting important details, there were also phrases that I just loved. Kipling always addresses the reader as "O Best Beloved," which felt super sweet to me . . . like we were his family (he originally wrote the stories for his children).

I also loved the way he used repetition to tell the story. There was almost always a few little repeating phrases throughout each story. For example, in "The Crab That Played With the Sea," Kipling took the reader to the four corners of the earth and told a little bit about how various landmarks came to be. Each time, before he moved on to the next area, he said, "And you can look them out on the map." By the last time, Aaron and Max jumped in and said, "I know what he's going to say next! 'And you can look them out on the map!'" This use of repetition gave even longer or more difficult passages a comfortable feeling of familiarity. 

And it was funny. Rudyard Kipling has a sense of humor, no question. In the story, "How the First Letter was Written," there is a misunderstanding between the cave people and a Stranger. They take him captive and walk back home in order of importance and status: "Behind them [the Woons, Neguses, and Akhoonds--more fun names] was the Tribe in hierarchical order, from owners of four caves (one for each season), a private reindeer run, and two salmon leaps, to feudal and prognathous Villeins, semi-entitles to half a bearskin of winter night, seven yards from the fire, and adscript serfs, holding the reversion of a scraped marrowbone under heriot (aren't those beautiful words, Best Beloved?)." So that was funny to me, but I'm sure it went right over my kids' heads--one of those tuning out moments.

But there was other humor that we all could enjoy together. In "The Cat That Walked By Himself," Kipling perfectly captured the arrogant and indifferent attitude of the cat. We all laughed as the cat outsmarted the Woman and weaseled his way into their home while still maintaining his independence and freedom.

So there were some good moments for me. And I don't think any of us will look back on the story with dislike. But I will say that later that evening, we started Pippi Longstocking, and I heaved a quiet sigh of contentment. Reading aloud had finally been restored to an activity of leisure and relaxation.


  1. I didn't have your problems with names, probably because I've read it before (and probably heard it before) and also probably because I think you are much more a perfectionist than I am! But for me there was some casual sexism/racism that tripped me up while reading, some of which I'd "fix" and some of which I'd comment on through tone and expression. But I considered the chance to address my kids as "O Best Beloved" worth all that.

    The humor is definitely aimed at the kids, so it's no surprise that your boys liked it more than you (and that the logic stuck in their heads). But it's also not a very easy read aloud, so it's a good sign of how strong their literary muscles have grown -- they have the patience to enjoy descriptions, the stamina to last the whole story, the wit to appreciate the repetition. So pat yourself on the back. And if I remember it right, Pippi Longstocking is a great back-to-school book, what with Pippi's experiences in the classroom and all.

    1. Yes, I was so surprised with how well they understood and enjoyed it. We would never have been able to read this book two years ago--and it's not just because they've grown up a lot in that time (although that certainly has something to do with it), but I know it's also because we've read so much in those two years that they can now handle the richer language and slower story. It's a great payoff, for sure.

  2. This book is part of our school curriculum and after I started reading it I thought, #1. this is not conducive to reading aloud and #2. my child isn't going to get ANYTHING out of it.

    Turned out, it ended up being Oldest's favorite book of the year! Or one of them anyway. :) And I ended up enjoying it, too! I'm actually looking forward to reading it again to my other children.

    Was fun to read your thoughts on the book!

    1. That's awesome, Catie! My kids have now been enjoying listening to the Jim Weiss narration of the book, and I think if I listened to it a few times, I might have an easier time with some of the pronunciations (although, it's not a complete collection, and I noticed that the stories with the trickiest of the names are not included. Coincidence? I don't know...).


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