May 05, 2016
(++++) ANIMAL REALITY AND FANTASY
Cecil’s Pride: The True Story of a Lion King. By Craig, Juliana and Isabella Hatkoff. Photographs by Brent Stapelkamp. Scholastic. $17.99.
The Jungle Book. By Rudyard Kipling. Retold by Laura Driscoll. Illustrated by Migy Blanco. Harper. $17.99.
Nature is not nice. No matter how humans glorify the natural world (as if humans were not themselves part of it), the fact is that animals are engaged 100% of the time in a fight to survive, reproduce and pass on their genes to a new generation (some would argue that so are humans, but that is another discussion). Cecil’s Pride could easily have been another “nature is grand” glorification of a regal-looking (to human eyes) lion whose killing by a hunter sparked anger and protests around the world – even though the hunt was legitimate, or the hunter had reason to believe it was. And to some extent, the writing by Craig Hatkoff and his daughters, Juliana and Isabella, is indeed a celebration of the lion that was given the human name Cecil by human observers. But the book is more than that, and better as a result. Photographer Brent Stapelkamp is a lion researcher who tracked and studied Cecil for nine years, and his excellent pictures show the inner workings of a lion pride in ways that make the book more lively and intriguing than it would be if it consisted only of celebratory, posed-looking photos. Thanks to Stapelkamp’s pictures and the Hatkoffs’ text, it is clear that Cecil’s life was not an easy or idyllic one: animals’ lives in the wild never are. The narrative explains how lion prides are formed and how they change, and it tells the story of how Cecil and his brother, named Leander by humans, fought for territory with a lion called Mpofu– resulting in Leander’s death – and what happened afterwards. This is actually the most remarkable part of the whole tale: Cecil fought with one of Mpofu’s sons, called Jericho by humans, but then the two actually paired up to rule territory together. This is almost unheard-of among lions, and even though Cecil’s Pride does not go into great detail about what happened, the Hatkoffs do convey a sense of surprise, even wonder, at the development. The book traces events affecting the Cecil/Jericho pride up to and including Cecil’s death and even thereafter – when, surprise upon surprise, Jericho accepted and in effect adopted Cecil’s cubs as his own, an extremely rare occurrence in a natural world in which (as the Hatkoffs explain at the end of the book), “the new leader of a pride wants to continue his bloodline” and therefore often kills the cubs of the previous leader, contributing to the 70% mortality rate for cubs before they mature. This underlying reality is what nature is all about, and an aspect that the usual “pretty” books about the natural world go out of their way to avoid discussing with young readers. Cecil’s Pride is all the stronger because it does not shrink from explaining the unpleasant realities of life in the wild – even as it simultaneously celebrates Cecil’s life and bemoans his death. And yes, the photos throughout really do show lions looking amazingly majestic and their cubs looking wonderfully cute – to human eyes, to be sure, but humans are part of nature, and hopefully young readers will pick up some of that reality by reading and seeing this book.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was well aware from his own life experiences of nature’s realities, and if he is today read much less often than he used to be, that is because he was decidedly enamored of the British colonial experience on which the world and Great Britain itself have emphatically turned their backs since Kipling won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. Modified, rewritten versions of some of Kipling’s works do, however, continue to be popular, stripped of their colonialist orientation and stylistic quirks (“o Best Beloved” in the Just So Stories, and all the rest). Kipling’s coupling of imaginative storytelling with a fine sense of natural reality shines through even in highly simplified versions of his writings, such as Laura Driscoll’s version of The Jungle Book. Although intended for ages 4-8, this book, with its warm and pleasantly rounded illustrations by Migy Blanco, could appeal to even-younger children – there is not even much menace in the appearance of Shere Khan here, and his reasons for demanding that Mowgli be turned over to him (along with his plans if that happens) are never brought to the fore. The smiling, thoroughly anthropomorphic renderings of Baloo and Bagheera, and the very, very young-looking Mowgli himself, make this into a pleasant, almost back-yard-style adventure rather than a serious foray into the dangers and delights of the wild. Mowgli smiles almost constantly, even when keeping bees away while taking honey from them and splashing before entering a stream to keep water snakes back. The whole tone of this retelling is gentle and rather sweet, appropriate for very young children and fitting well within the realm of children’s books for a 21st-century audience – and unlikely to result in those children wanting to track down the much darker original Jungle Book or read more of Kipling’s stories, which is something of a shame. This simplification may, however, result in kids wanting to see the 1967 Disney animated version of The Jungle Book, which had its own quirks and oddities and which Walt Disney himself insisted be made by animators who had not read Kipling’s original; or it may attract today’s kids to the Disney studio’s new live-action remake. In any of these guises – especially Kipling’s original, but even in the cuddliness of Driscoll and Blanco – The Jungle Book still has the power to captivate through its blending of fantasy with a sure understanding of the attractions and frights of the natural world.