Before the creation of Rudyard Kipling’s naughty but lovable animal-children in Just So Stories, children’s literature tended to offer children two models of behavior: the good child and the bad child. Kipling’s stories declare that it is natural and right for children to exhibit all types of behavior as they form their identities.
Just So Stories celebrates the innocent spontaneity of very young children. Some of Kipling’s other children’s works go a little further by examining the moral development of children as they grow older. The Jungle Books (1894-1895), Kim (1901), and Stalky & Co (1899) relate how children’s characters are formed as they learn to distinguish between good and bad, to be assertive, and to express unique identities.
Mowgli, from The Jungle Books, is the ultimate uninhibited child. An Indian orphan reared in the jungle by wolves, Mowgli is Kipling’s child version of the “noble savage” described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Like Rousseau, Kipling believed that human nature would basically turn to good unless corrupted by the evils of civilization. Mowgli’s challenge is to retain his good “animal identity” as he confronts the world of humans. Similar in theme to The Jungle Books, Kim relates the identity crisis of an Irish boy orphaned in India. Kim feels like a Hindu but, through sometimes painful experience, learns that he is a Sahib. Stalky & Co. tells how three boys survive the often brutal bullying by adults and older children at a boys’ boarding school. Like Mowgli and Kim, the boys must struggle to keep their natural goodness intact so that they do not themselves grow up to be oppressors.
In all his works for children, Kipling shows his admiration for the innate nobility of humans and animals and his distaste for the brutality and corrupting influence of “civilized” adults.