"How the First Letter was Written" and "How the Alphabet was Made" seem like anomalies in Kipling's Just So Stories. The quintessential Just So Story, it is easy to think, concerns the acquisition of a distinctive physical trait by some distinctive animal. But two-thirds of the way into the collection, between the stories in which animals with attitude are physically transformed by their circumstances and the three final stories in which animals with attitude transform the world around them, we find two stories about the invention of literacy. These two stories, far from being anomalous, are in fact the heart of the collection, as they seem also to have been closest to Kipling's own heart; for they explore the intersections between child and adult, between orality and literacy, and between image and text that serve as the central structures of the whole book.
Just So Stories, as Lisa Lewis has noted, is the only one of Kipling's works for which he himself provided the illustrations (xvi). (1) His daughter Elsie remembered that "The illustrating of these stories gave their author immense pleasure, and he worked at them (mostly in Indian ink) with meticulous care and was delighted when we approved of the results" (Bambridge 587). The drawings therefore add to the stories and poems an additional layer of signification. They have what Brian Alderson calls "an organic relationship to the text" (160): "Illustration of this kind burrows into the narrative in order to create pictures as visual events parallel to the events of the text" (154). With the important exception of the two Taffy stories, each story is accompanied by two full-page illustrations and an elaborately decorated initial capital that also comments on the text. As well, Kipling includes detailed commentaries on each of the full-page illustrations, and many illustrations themselves include text, or symbols that can be read or decoded as text.
Reading Kipling's illustrated Just So Stories is therefore an extraordinarily complex activity, rife with contradiction and riddled with paradox--a complexity not usually acknowledged in Kipling scholarship, where, in an increasing and imposing mass of commentary about Kipling's style, life, politics, and the like, Just So Stories is accorded cursory attention or more often ignored altogether. Such scholarly neglect is doubtless the result of a widespread assumption that there can be nothing much to say about a children's book, especially not a children's book with pictures, or that academic criticism of these stories is somehow suspect because it would destroy the sentimental aura of "magic" with which a much-loved children's book is commonly surrounded. I intend to remedy, in a small way, such neglect of Just So Stories and to suggest that behind the magic of the text are some very deliberate sleights of hand and a consistent system of ideas about language, writing, and what it means to be human.
Consider, as an example of the many paradoxes of the book, the existence of the stories both as oral performance and as printed text. The Just So Stories appear to have originated in tales Kipling told to his children when they were young and at the very least were tested, orally, on children, as the illustrations were afterwards. Angela Thirkell's testimony has often been quoted (she was a neighbour to the Kiplings and a childhood friend of their first daughter Josephine):
During those long warm summers Cousin Ruddy used to try out the Just So Stories on a nursery audience. Sometimes Josephine and I would be invited into the study, a pleasant bow-windowed room, where Cousin Ruddy sat at his work-table looking exactly like the profile portrait of him that Uncle Phil painted; pipe always at hand, high forehead, baldish even then, black moustache, and the dark complexion which made gossip-mongers attribute a touch of Indian blood to him [...]. Or sometimes we adjourned on a wet day to the Drill Hall where the horse and parallel bars made splendid forts and camping grounds, and when the battle was over and the Roundhead had been unmercifully rolled upon and pommelled by small fists he would be allowed by way of ransom to tell us about the mariner of infinite resource and sagacity and the suspenders--you must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved. …