JUST SO STORIES by Rudyard Kipling (Silver Burdett: $12.95; 76 pp.; age 5 up). In the 1890s, Rudyard Kipling began telling his children stories inspired from his own youth in Bombay where nannies had fired his imagination with tales about the native animals. He adapted these into "The Jungle Book," a collection of whoppers about articulate animals, and probably his most famous contribution to modern fantasy. His "Just So Stories" explain how nine other creatures, also erudite, came about their peculiar origins, as in "How the Leopard Got His Spots." These volumes fit the definition of true classics as they've delighted both adults and children for nearly eight decades.
What keeps the dust off Kipling is his unharnessed imagination and language so playful it begs to be read aloud. " . . . The mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel" is what the cetacean eats before he samples a "nubly" mariner in "How the Whale Got His Throat." "The Beginning of the Armadillos" tells how the Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog and the Slow-and-Solid Tortoise roll themselves into a new species with "scales lying lippety-lappety" down its back. Kipling's tongue-in-cheek asides fuel the humor and, keeping with oral tradition, his characters live happily ever after.
This new edition of "Just So Stories" showcases Meg Rutherford's beautiful artwork, though it's curious why her name isn't mentioned on the cover. Every page has borders in the side margins, and her pictures alternate between water colors and brown line drawing with a thumb-size sketch at the beginning of each chapter.
THE ELEPHANT'S CHILD, from the "Just So Stories" by Rudyard Kipling; drawings by Tim Raglin (Knopf: $13.95; 40 pp.; age 5 up). This lusciously illustrated copy is packaged with an audio cassette narrated by actor Jack Nicholson in his slow, sultry voice. Thanks to Bobby McFerrin's exciting musical interpretation, listeners can feel the pulse of the African jungle and its "great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River." Although this is one of Kipling's most popular tales and is praised in several anthologies, there is still something unsettling about it. Those familiar with the young elephant will remember he is spanked every time he asks his elders a question, often "with a hard, hard hoof." Because his innocent wonderings are ignored, he almost meets an untimely end with the Crocodile. Considering we now encourage kids to be curious as well as to protect themselves from abuse--for repeated hitting is abuse--it's hard to understand why the publishers didn't spotlight a more appropriate Kipling.