The Books We Got For Christmas

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Nothing could be further from the gay, amoral spirit of Uncle Remus than the sentimentality of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders, of almost the same decade. They are the Elsie Dinsmores of animal stories—tear-jerkers. The cause they special-pleaded was a good cause—“be kind to animals.” In fact, Black Beauty did for oppressed animals what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for oppressed people. Black Beauty herself was a noble creature but was made to express herself with such prim, ladylike, and moralizing indignation that she has become to most modern children an unreal and sentimental creature.

Having animals talk in stories is as old a device as Aesop’s Fables and a legitimate one. But to make them talk like inferior people is to betray their natures. Kipling’s Jungle Books are still cherished because he, more clearly than anyone else, understood this. The jackal, Tabaqui the Dish-licker, whines in his speech; Shere Khan, the tiger, purrs or roars; the Bandar-log monkeys are full of foolish chatter; Bagheera the Black Panther, had a voice “as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree.” And Akela, head of the wolf pack, gives his full-throated cry, “Look well—look well, o wolves!” Kipling understood the language of beasts and translated faithfully for his young readers, who, like Mowgli, feel at home in his jungle.

The Jungle Books belong to children everywhere, but American children first claimed them as their own because they were written when Kipling lived in Vermont and the first story was published in St. Nicholas. Younger children often prefer the funny, deliberately exaggerated Just So Stories. The Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake in his highfalutin’ way says to the Elephant’s Child, “‘Rash and inexperienced traveller, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck’ (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile), ‘will permanently vitiate your future career.’”

 

If more of our current writers were to recognize, as Kipling did, most children’s “’satiable curtiosity” about words, we would not now be so smothered by books with the life beaten out of them by that bogey, “vocabulary norms.”

Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton and The Call of the Wild by Jack London still command the respect of boys and girls, not only because of their drama but because of their truth to fact. The Old Mother West Wind stories by Thornton Burgess, on the other hand, are soon outgrown because they are cluttered with conversations and personalities neither quite animal nor quite human.

In The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Wind in the Willows we recognize ourselves. Here the creatures are both animal and human. It is hard to believe that Beatrix Potter wrote Peter Rabbit as recently as 1902. We feel that Peter has always been wandering about in America as well as in Mr. McGregor’s garden, “going lippity—lippity—not very fast, and looking all around.”

On the other hand, it comes as a surprise to many that the English Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows was published in America as long ago as 1908. It is a recent discovery for many adults who now threaten to monopolize this children’s classic, uttering precious nonsense about the mystical quality of the book. Fortunately, children turn a deaf ear, not giving a hoot whether the characters are symbolic and profound or not. To them, Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Toad are real; they are funny; they have wonderful adventures. That is enough.

If children do not grasp all the subtleties in Wind in the Willows, nothing in The Story of Doctor Dolittle is lost on them. Here is the perfect go-between for animals and children, for Doctor Dolittle learns animal language from Polynesia, the parrot, so that he can be their doctor. His first patient was a horse who, with good sense, left a veterinarian who had been treating him for spavins when all the time what he needed was glasses. Doctor Dolittle, understanding every word that came straight from the horse’s mouth, fitted him with a splendid pair of spectacles. From then on the good doctor’s reputation was made—with children as well as with his patients.