All I've ever known really about the Jungle Book was confined to the film version, which is a far cry from Rudyard Kipling's original. My first surprise, was that this was an anthology, not just the story of Mowgli (but that is by far the best story in the collection). My next surprise came in the language of the story. Kid's read this?
This story did wonders to explain the gaps in learning, creativity. boldness, and initiative between previous generations and the current one. In the 19th century, kids idolized and fantasized about being Mowgli, living among wild animals, learning the laws of the jungle, and eventually defeating your nemesis (a man eating tiger, who Mowgli not only kills, but skins). In the 21st century, we have team Edward, idolizing a pale, skinny pathetic vampire creature who can't manage his love life. Fail. And it's not the difference in machoness that is upsetting, it's the culture of self-reliance and overcoming of obstacles and dedication to a goal that is missing in literature today. For a long time, children's stories were educational, moralistic as well as entertaining. Today, we opt for the latter at the expense of the rest. It is, of course, important to analyze the message being sent and ingrained in our children's psyche, but a modern audience, sad to say, wouldn't really pick up on the imperialistic and social darwinistic themes in the stories (I mean come on, this is Mr. "White Man's Burden".
The other stories in this collection were okay. The second story is the story of Kotick, a white seal (yes white, which makes him superior in the Kiplingesque view of the universe) who attempts to find a new home for the seals of the Aleutians where they won't be hunted by man anymore (a rather obvious allusion to the growing Zionist movement of the late 19th century). The next is the story of Rikki-tikki-tavi, a faithful pet mongoose who defends his adopted human family from cobras. Lastly, is the story of Toomai of the Elephants, a young Indian boy who observes the legendary dance of the elephants and is forever changed by it.
Besides the overtones of supremacy there are wonderfully modern themes in many of the stories: loyalty, the sanctity of nature, the importance of every individual, not just in society, but in their ecological niche, and the relationship and interdependency of man and nature. In spite of it's age, The Jungle Book is hardly dated, and I look forward to sharing it with my children.