This is the first book I remember reading. And rereading – I read it dozens of times in my pre-teen years. I must have been six or seven when I first read it, though family legend has it that I had precociously learned to read when I was much younger. This edition of The Jungle Book had a large blue quarto hardcover – I can see it in my mind’s eye as I write – and contained many illustrations of Mowgli, Shere Khan, Baloo, Bagheera and the other denizens of Kipling’s jungle.
It’s not hard to explain the intense and lasting allure the book had for me because I too was a boy living, if not in an Indian jungle, then something very close to one in West Africa. At the bottom of our garden there was a dense and gloomy strip of tropical rainforest with a path meandering through it and I used it regularly as a shortcut, saving me the half mile that walking along the road entailed. There was a certain danger involved in taking this route – poisonous snakes and scorpions – particularly as dusk advanced. But it was thrilling, and often I’d stop halfway and stand, perfectly alone, and listen to the noises – crickets, bird calls, movements in the branches above – and imagine myself as Mowgli, lost and vulnerable.
Growing up in Ghana and Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s afforded me many opportunities to reimagine the romance of The Jungle Book. As a child I was free to roam both the nearby forests and the savannah – the orchard bush, as it’s described – that surrounded our house. It was very easy to find yourself utterly alone in an African landscape that showed no trace of a human presence. I remember once spending almost a whole day sitting high in the branches of a huge tree watching the natural world go by. Though not raised by wolves, I could imagine myself during these solitary wanderings in a fiction of my own making where, like Mowgli, I had to adapt and survive. And then I went home for lunch.
I’m convinced that one of the factors that draws young readers to fiction is a kind of verification process. You read something in a story and then experience it in your own life and – consciously or unconsciously – you vet the fiction for veracity. If it passes the veracity test then the fiction appears all the more potent, and the author’s ability to make you recognise the reality of their invented world takes you to other books in search of the same experience. This was what was happening to me when I stood in my own patch of jungle, savouring my emotions, examining the sensations, and recognising that Kipling had got it right.
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)