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Rudyard Kipling has always been controversial – even in his day, his imperialism was considered extreme – but “no one has ever disagreed about his Just So Stories”, said Janet Montefiore in the Times Literary Supplement. Ever since they were first published in 1902, the 13 tales explaining how the leopard got his spots, the elephant his trunk and the rhinoceros his saggy skin – have “enchanted readers and listeners”.

Now, “in this origin story of origin stories”, John Batchelor provides a fascinating account of how the tales came into being, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. Kipling originally conceived them as “bedtime performances for his eldest child, Josephine” – who, like many small listeners, wanted things “just so”, and would object if her father changed a word.

Tragically, “Effie” only lived to hear three of the tales: she died, aged seven, in 1899. Kipling continued addressing the stories to his daughter – referred to as “Best Beloved” – and Batchelor convincingly presents them as delicate acts of “imaginative reparation”, designed to somehow keep her alive.

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The title of this book is far too modest, said John Carey in The Sunday Times: it covers the whole of Kipling’s life, from his birth in Bombay in 1865 (his first language was Hindi) to his “entombment by a grateful nation in Westminster Abbey in 1936”. Although “Batchelor frankly acknowledges Kipling’s racism”, his real subject is his “imaginative versatility” – evident in all his work, including his 1901 masterpiece Kim.

Expertly drawing on multiple sources, and making “intriguing connections” between his work for children and for adults, Batchelor suggests Kipling the creative writer and Kipling the political thinker were entirely “separate creatures”. The result is a probing and “remarkable” book.

Yale 240pp £18.99; The Week Bookshop £14.99

How The Just So Stories Were Made

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