Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

I chose to read Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories first for the Read the Nobels challenge because I remembered the imaginative premise of his magical world and wanted to experience his world as an adult (and read it to my infant son). I very much enjoyed reading the stories again, although there are some “politically incorrect” stereotypes in them I hadn’t expected.

In these stories, Kipling gives us the fairy tales that explain to us how the things we are familiar with came to be: how the whale got his throat, how the elephant got his trunk, how the leopard got spots, and so forth. I enjoyed a retreat into a magical world. Reading Kipling’s stories encouraged made me to think of my own creative explanations for why things are as they are. Instead of taking our children literally, let’s give them stories that explain things! The creativity is fun. My favorite stories were “How the Camel Got His Hump” and “The Cat That Walked By Himself.” I liked all twelve.

Kipling wrote these stories for children. Each story is from the perspective of an adult talking to a child. They feel like folk tales—and they are all delightful and innocent creations of imagination.

I believe these stories appeal to children, even 100 years later. I have one concern, however: a few stories have some issues. Call the issues what you want: stereotypical, politically incorrect, insensitive, rude, racist, etc. For example, in telling the story of how the tides came to be (in “The Crab that Played with the Sea”), Kipling describes a man who is “lazy” and doesn’t want to row his boat; he begs the fisherman on the moon to put down his line and pull the sea so he won’t have to row. Kipling claims this man was the ancestor of the “Malazy” people. There are also similar stereotypical comments about women, men, and other racial groups, including the word “nigger”. None of the stereotypes or offensive words are integral to the stories and I don’t think a child will pick up on (some of) the references, but it certainly caught my attention. Such explanations are obviously as silly as how the elephant got his trunk, but they do make the stories seem dated. The copy I read was complete and unabridged; I imagine edited versions take out the offensive references.

Did you read these stories as a child, and did you notice the references that are insensitive? Have you read these stories as an adult? What do you think about the early-1900s stereotypes in the text? Should classics like these stories be left alone, or should editors “correct” or deftly delete the stereotypes to avoid offense, especially in books for children?

I originally wrote this here on my blog. I'd love for you to join in on the discussion on my blog.

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© Read the NobelsMaira Gall