Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (1894, 1895, 1995)

I'm unsure how to proceed in writing about this edition of The Jungle Book because I really hated it.  I love The Jungle Books too; not adoration like I reserve for some childhood books (The Hobbit,  Narnia) but love just the same.  I can't actually remember the last time I read The Jungle Books, but it's not been recently enough to either have blogged about the book or reviewed it on Goodreads.  That's several years ago.

The illustrator of this version is Jerry Pinkney, an illustrator I tend to really like.  For example, his Caldecott winning The Lion and the Mouse was a book I gave five stars to on Goodreads, and (as I admitted in the review), I rarely like wordless picture books.  Although I haven't really reviewed any of his other books officially, I'm aware of many of them, and haven't had a visceral reaction to them.  I was certainly aware of his version of The Jungle Book.  I've probably even read bits and pieces of it, and may even have read this version the last time I read the book.

But this time, I hated it.  For at least three reasons (there may be more).  The first being, the pictures seem to cramped and pushed together.  Mowgli's jungle is this huge, lush, green place in my mind.  Pinkney's jungle is cramped, dark, brown.  Each illustration has been squeezed - for some reason - into postcard size.  They are awful.  Why, Pinkney, why such disappointing illustrations to such a vivid book?  India can be pictured many ways, but it is hardly brown.  Boring, boring, boring illustrations.  Not one stood out.

Reason two:  Mowgli is ugly.  He's so ugly.  This isn't a realistic story; boys aren't adopted by wolves (they are eaten by wolves).  It's a legend, brought to life by Kipling.  It's a fantasy.  So why the realistic pictures? I understand portraying the animal realistically, but Mowgli is just plain ugly.  Here is a direct quote, from Mowgli's mother:  "Have any told thee that thou art beautiful beyond all men?"  Pinkney doesn't make him look that way.  He's ugly from the first moments suckling with his wolf brothers to the last illustrations as a teenager, going back to the man world.  He is especially ugly on the cover!  To exclaim like a Kipling character in exasperation:  "Bah"

Reason Three has to do with editing.  I know that The Jungle Book is also The Jungle Books, and if I remember correctly, the Mowgli stories were split between both (from my childhood public library or elementary school library where I read them - I think they had green covers).  I also know that editions since then and before this have plucked all the Mowgli stories and put them in one volume.  But why include Rikki-tikki-Tavi and exclude something like The White Seal?  I also remember liking The Undertakers as well. This is a minor quibble - I can go find those stories elsewhere.  But I'm sorry for the poor kid who picks this version up, is stuck with an ugly stepsister of a Mowgli, and can't even read The White Seal.  Again, "bah," I say.

That said, I don't recall reading each and every story in The Jungle Books, although since they aren't all here, I can't prove that, can I?  So I'm not going to swallow crow until I absolutely have to!

Kipling's poetry sure leaves a lot to be desired.  They all sound exactly the same.

I still love Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,and I think of all the stories in the book, this is still the most accessible to young readers today.  I think it's an exciting story even as adult, and the characters are great - really vivid and alive.

I'm struck again as an adult by the Biblical language in most of the book.  Many "thees" and "thous," for reasons I've never quite understood.  It makes the book sound so archaic.  At the same time, that apparently didn't bother me all that much as a kid.  Perhaps we were most used to reading the King James than kids are now, and already had caught the flavor.

In looking at the stories, I really don't have a favorite.  I loved - and still love - "Red Dog."  "Kaa's Hunting" is also one I enjoy.  "The King's Ankus" is interesting as well.  The stories about Mowgli and the villagers make more sense now as a grown-up than they probably did to me as a kid, and I probably like them more now.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (which prompted me to read The Jungle Book) is still more paying homage to Kipling than retelling Kipling.  "The Hound of God" has flavors of "Kaa's Hunting" without being exactly alike.  "Dance Macabre" reminded me of "Spring Running" without being even derivative.  The treasure of the Sleer owes something to the white cobra and the King's ankus, but again aren't exactly the same.  I suppose for some, this is what makes The Graveyard Book annoying but I found that quite clever and interesting (obviously, the Newbery committee that year agreed with me, so bah to Gaiman haters).

"All the jungle was his friend, for all the jungle was afraid of him."  They aren't really your friends then, are they Mowgli.  He sounds like a tyrant.  Teenage boys with too much power are usually.  Interesting - the free online version I read, The Second Jungle Book is slightly different, and gives this phrase a different meaning: "all the Jungle was his friend, and just a little afraid of him."  The first phrase, which I assume was edited later, means the jungle was his friend because they were afraid of him; the second phrase, which I assume is the original, means they were his friend regardless of their fear of him.  Makes him sound far less intimidating and dictatorial.  Regardless, this line is from the first paragraph of "Red Dog" where Kaa says "Tell me Master of the Jungle, who is the Master of the Jungle?" and Mowgli admits that even he turns aside for the Little People, the black bees.  Mowgli is put in his place.

The Jungle BookThe Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My love for The Jungle Books doesn't approach the adoration I have for some other childhood classics (The Hobbit comes to mind first), but it is something I read and liked as a kid, and still re-read occasionally as an adult.  Whatever library I checked them out from, they came in two books The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book.  I'm always struck as an adult by two things - the Biblical language of the Mowgli stories (all thees and thous) and what a great story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" still is over a century later.  It's the most accessible story in the collection for the modern child, I think.  (that said, all of those "thees and thous" didn't really bug ME much as a child reader, but perhaps the King James Bible was more heard and read 30-some years ago).  I want to complain a moment, though, about the edition I read.  The Pinkney illustrations are god-awful.  And I love Jerry Pinkney's work; The Lion and the Mouse is gorgeous (and I generally hate wordless picture books).  India brings to mind many images and colors - lush greens, brilliant reds, blue waters and orange tigers.  Pinkney's cramped, postcard-sized illustrations are mostly dark and brown.  Plus, the stories they left out - "The White Seal," "The Undertakers" are quite good; I'm not sure why they were excluded.  To quote Shere Khan, "Bah!" What a shame that kids today have to rely on this as their introduction to a great classic of children's literature.

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