While Joseph Rudyard Kipling is often remembered for his two Jungle Books and his poems, not many know that he also published a delightful collection of pourquoi stories titled, Just So Stories for Little Children.
Kipling is said to have invented these stories as ingenious explanations of questions such as ‘How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin’ or ‘How the Leopard Got His Spots’ for his young daughters and their friends – to entertain them, and perhaps also to satisfy their curiosity at an age when children tend to ask ‘the many-why questions’.
The stories are written “in an amusing grand style, peppered with long, and delightfully unlikely, invented words…Each story includes a short poem, and the first edition features Kipling’s own illustrations.”  And as Michael Morpurgo, who has written the introduction to a wonderfully illustrated, limited collector’s edition of Just So Stories published by the Folio Society, notes in his review:
From the start the story is intimately told. Kipling talks to us like an uncle reading to us at bedtime, calls us “Best Beloved”. We feel he means it; he’s at once on our side. He takes us on an adventure to the wilds of Africa, sets his tale among a family of all kinds of animals, creates a world where they all grow up together in harmony – well, a sort of harmony, much like any human family…Children love these stories as well because of their extraordinary ingenuity and inventiveness. Kipling has an Aesopian understanding of animals, of our dealings with them and our curious interrelatedness, interdependence, how we can learn about our own strange behaviour, our vanities and our foolishness, through them and through our relationship with them.
In “How the Rhinoceros got his Skin” the Parsee is interrupted in his cake-making by a grumpy and obstreperous smooth-skinned Rhinoceros who proceeds first to scare the Parsee up a tree and then to steal his cake, which is “all done brown and smelt most sentimental”. The Parsee is not best pleased.
Them that takes cakes
Which the Parsee-man bakes
Makes dreadful mistakes.
Five weeks later, in a heatwave, the Rhinoceros unbuttons his skin and goes for a swim. The Parsee “smiled one smile that ran all round his face two times”, danced three times round the skin and rubbed his hands. He has a cunning plan. He fills his hat with “old, dry, stale, tickly cake-crumbs” and rubs these crumbs into the Rhinoceros’s skin. Out comes the Rhinoceros, puts on his skin, and of course it’s rather itchy. So he goes home, “very angry indeed and horribly scratchy”. Which is why “every rhinoceros has great folds in his skin and a very bad temper, all on account of the cake-crumbs inside”.
One of my favorite stories from this collection is The Cat That Walked By Himself in which “the transformation from wild to domestic is easily explained, ingeniously too.”
Hear and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild. The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild–as wild as wild could be–and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.
Of course the Man was wild too. He was dreadfully wild. He didn’t even begin to be tame till he met the Woman, and she told him that she did not like living in his wild ways. She picked out a nice dry Cave, instead of a heap of wet leaves, to lie down in; and she strewed clean sand on the floor; and she lit a nice fire of wood at the back of the Cave; and she hung a dried wild-horse skin, tail-down, across the opening of the Cave; and she said, ‘Wipe you feet, dear, when you come in, and now we’ll keep house.’
That night, Best Beloved, they ate wild sheep roasted on the hot stones, and flavoured with wild garlic and wild pepper; and wild duck stuffed with wild rice and wild fenugreek and wild coriander; and marrow-bones of wild oxen; and wild cherries, and wild grenadillas. Then the Man went to sleep in front of the fire ever so happy; but the Woman sat up, combing her hair. She took the bone of the shoulder of mutton–the big fat blade-bone–and she looked at the wonderful marks on it, and she threw more wood on the fire, and she made a Magic. She made the First Singing Magic in the world.
Out in the Wet Wild Woods all the wild animals gathered together where they could see the light of the fire a long way off, and they wondered what it meant.
Then Wild Horse stamped with his wild foot and said, ‘O my Friends and O my Enemies, why have the Man and the Woman made that great light in that great Cave, and what harm will it do us?’
Wild Dog lifted up his wild nose and smelled the smell of roast mutton, and said, ‘I will go up and see and look, and say; for I think it is good. Cat, come with me.’
‘Nenni!’ said the Cat. ‘I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me. I will not come.’
‘Then we can never be friends again,’ said Wild Dog, and he trotted off to the Cave. But when he had gone a little way the Cat said to himself, ‘All places are alike to me. Why should I not go too and see and look and come away at my own liking.’ So he slipped after Wild Dog softly, very softly, and hid himself where he could hear everything.
When Wild Dog reached the mouth of the Cave he lifted up the dried horse-skin with his nose and sniffed the beautiful smell of the roast mutton, and the Woman, looking at the blade-bone, heard him, and laughed, and said, ‘Here comes the first. Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, what do you want?’
Read the full story here. It was later also adapted and animated by Soyuzmultfilmin, the famous Russian studio, and released in 1988 under the name The Cat Who Walked By Herself. A shorter version with English subtitles is available on YouTube.
Tragically, Kipling lost his beloved daughter, Josephine, to fever and pneumonia in 1899. However, he made himself write these stories down and published them in 1902; and as the British Library notes, “During the 20th century, generations of children were tucked into bed with readings of [these] highly imaginative and wildly improbable explanations. Throughout the book he addresses the reader as “Best Beloved”, reinforcing the intimacy of story-telling and recalling [his own] first ‘best beloved’.”
This delightful classic is now copyright-free and can be downloaded as an e-book or an audio-book. Or if you like to hold the books in your hands as you read them to your children (or yourself!) you can get it here or here.