Reading Aloud with My Oldest: Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902)

I knew for quite a while that one day I would read Kipling’s Just So Stories to my son because that’s a book my father read to me as a child and I remembered enjoying it a lot. It was part of “the” list but of course I couldn’t remember how old I was when I listened to it, so I had no clue when to read it to my son.

Maybe I should have waited another 6 months to read that book with him (he didn’t get the point of some stories at all), but my son is now so full of questions about everything that I figured that  tales of origin (“pourquoi stories” is apparently an English expression) will be very successful at this stage. And they were!

My memory of the book was kind of fuzzy, but as I read it all came back to me. The second time around, as an adult, I was able to enjoy it even more, because I paid more attention to the language and to the witty allusions that are quite above a 6 year old’s head.

I read it in French, a “classic” translation, and by classic I mean that it was the same as the one when I was a child myself… that’s telling, and that it got the Kipling’s original illustrations. The translation by Robert d’Humières and Louis Fabulet dates back 1961, and funnily enough they excluded the tale “”How the Camel Got His Hump” because they deemed it “untranslatable” due to puns. It was eventually Pierre Gripari,a children’s writer I love (because I was brought up listening to his tales read by him on vinyl disks… yeah, “classic”, I told you). who found a way to translate Kipling’s puns.

My son was drawn in right from the beginning with “How the Whale Got His Throat”, but what he mostly liked were the mariner’s suspenders and jack-knife (and the fact that after the mariner had left his suspenders in the whale’s throat he had to hold his blue breeches to go home (the French version said “culotte” as in “underpants”, ergo funny). He laughed out loud at The Elephant’s Child and how he spoke when the Crocodile had gotten hold of his nose. He also loved the stupid Jaguar who couldn’t tell a Slow-and-Solid Tortoise from a Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog (in The Beginning of the Armadillos, but we had to google Armadillos next, because they aren’t a familiar sight downtown Paris).

We had fun together, which is the main point. I must say that I had a hard time reconciling these charming tales (still very readable by todays standards) with the knowledge that Kipling also wrote the White man’s burden (which I haven’t read) and was a late-Victorian imperialist.

Have you had any good or bad experience with Kipling?



4 thoughts on “Reading Aloud with My Oldest: Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902)

  1. You brought back warm memories of my mother reading me Just So Stories (in the original English). Reading them again to my own children I realized how much I missed as a child, but no matter. I loved them, especially the elephant’s child, and I was left with a life-long desire to see an armadillo. They are not available in Connecticut, but I finally met some in Georgia.

    The illustration you show is the same as in my childhood edition!

    I also liked the Jungle Books, but they would go down less well today, I think.

    I have read “adult” Kipling with mixed feelings, but did thoroughly enjoy Kim. It is surprising in its breadth of sympathy for the various groups in India and much better than the movie based on it.

  2. I never read this one with my son – funny, I never even thought of it. I think my impression of Kipling is mired in non-PC empire-building stuff where we give the natives what for. Now I wish he was little again so we could try it out!

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