Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Disney-Free Kipling

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I keep finding myself drawn to read Kipling's The Jungle Book, maybe for the first time. I was first challenged to do so by Carol Jago at the NCTE conference a couple of years ago, when the focus was on new and old classics. I realized that while I had read parts, most of my images came from the Disney cartoon, which I remember seeing in the theater in the eighth or ninth grade.

Further inspiration came from my reading of The Jungle Law, the story of Kipling and a young boy who was his neighbor, when he lived in America with his new bride while writing this classic. Neil Gaimann's The Graveyard Book, further enticed me to read it. When I found the book as a recurring motif in The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht, I figured three's a charm.

The stories are simple, but with layers of meaning. They could easily be read aloud to children at bedtime, or they could be used metaphorically to represent events throughout history and politics. I somehow hadn't realized that Mowgli's story is just one of those collected in The Jungle Book. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, that brave snake-killing mongoose, is another of Kipling's heroes. I hadn't read his stories of the white seal looking for a home safe from humans or elephants herding other elephants. One human's account of conversations between animals, whose language he had managed to pick up without their knowledge, put me in mind of Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing, in which the protagonist learns the language of the local natives by immersion.

Reading The Jungle Book compels me to return to other classics for the first time. The debate continues in education for the teaching of the classics. Some advise assigning these wonderful works during school lest they never be encountered voluntarily. Others suggest that if we assign then too early, young readers will believe they have really read them and not turn back later.

My own re-reading of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth hit home this point. I had read--and loved--the book in ninth or tenth grade. The paperback I re-read in my thirties still had my maiden name penciled in the inside cover. But as an adult, I read the book as such a parable. I brought more to it the second time. I believe the same is true of The Jungle Book.

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