It's how they take you anywhere

A Rudyard Kipling story is all I need to transport an after-school classroom of rowdy 9-year-olds.

Published February 16, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Let us begin where it all begins, in the land of the Limpopo River, in the company of the Elephant's Child, his bulging, blackish, boot-sized nose, his powerful 'satiable curtiosity.

"Wait," I say. "Just wait. What's this? ''Satiable curtiosity'?"

"Oh!" Fourteen hands waving. "Oh! Oh! I know this one! I know!"

" 'Satiable curtiosity," Greg says, his wire-rimmed glasses twinkling, sparking, "means an elephant who is very curious."

"But nicely curious," Michael adds, a smile beneath his spray of freckles. "He's very nice about his being so curious."

" 'Satiably nicely curious," Alex says, finger up, like a meticulous trial lawyer. "Don't forget the 'satiable part."

"But I don't get the ''satiable,'" I complain. "What is it? Someone help me out here with this term."

"It's a Rudyard Kipling word." A chorus. "You know." Twenty-eight separate eyes roll at me. "Rudyard Kipling. He's the guy who makes his words up."

"Ah," I say. "A fictional term." Dictionary in hand, we guess at what we suppose it means, and then the kids fall quiet, I read on.

Oh, the places we go, the characters we meet. The questions the Elephant's Child asks himself into, the spankings he gets for being so thoroughly 'satiably curtiose. He wants to know what the Crocodile has for his dinner, and ain't nobody going to get in the way of an answer.

"Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out," the Kolokolo Bird tells our stump-nosed friend. So the next day, "when there was nothing left of the Equinoxes, because the Precession had preceded according to precedent," the Elephant bundles up bananas and sugar cane and 17 melons and heads off to discover the Crocodile's diet. The Elephant's Child is spanked, of course, he's dissuaded, he's even ridiculed. But nothing deters him, not even the fact that he doesn't himself know what a Crocodile looks like.

On he goes, east by north, through all those "promiscuous parts." Eventually he stumbles across the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake, whose "scalesome, failsome" tail is also -- and the kids find this so funny -- used for spanking. Whenever we get to a part about the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, I hold my breath, and the kids sing out the marvelous phrase, let it rip far, high and loud. It's practically a rap song we've got going. I'm standing up. They're sitting down. All of us are wriggling to Kipling's story. We know things are going to happen, and they do, and whenever I can, I sneak a peek at the kids' faces, these 9- and 10-year-olds who gather on Tuesdays to talk books, and not because they have to. Robert's blushing, and Steven has his lips pursed and Dana's eyes, like her cheeks, are brightly burning. Jeremy, my own son, can barely hold his laughter in, and the others aren't even trying. They are submerged in Kipling's tale, moving their bodies to the beat.

Things just keep happening. The story grows wilder. Pretty soon the Elephant's Child is flat-out kneeling on the banks of the Limpopo River, begging the Crocodile to reveal his diet. "Oh no," the kids are saying, throwing their hands against their eyes to fend off the fates. "Get away from the Crocodile," Samantha and Jillian warn. "He's going to eat you," Casey cautions, but by now it's too late. The Crocodile's got his "musky, tusky" mouth on the Elephant's Child's puny nose, and the tussle on the river bank is heated. The Crocodile pulls one way, the Elephant's Child pulls the other, they go back and forth and pull and pull, and it doesn't look good for the Elephant's Child.

"Pull harder," the kids are yelling, to the hero of our story. "Harder! Harder! Get yourself out of there!"

"Why'd he have to trust the Crocodile?" they wonder out loud now. They wonder, alarmed. "Why did he have to be so 'satiably curtiose?"

None of us -- not the kids, not me -- know for certain what will really happen next, but I read, and they urge, and I read, and the kids cheer, and soon enough the scalesome, flailsome tailed snake has come to the rescue, has thrown himself into the fray, is helping our imperiled hero escape the jaws of the pesky Crocodile. A victory roar goes up around the room. I take the tiniest, slightly melodramatic-ish break. And then I read on and the Elephant's Child makes his way home, his nose now a finely stretched elephant-style trunk that is good for many things and also good for spankings. When I look up, the kids are swaying their own trunks -- their arms stretched taut in front of them, their hands locked in a knot. They're swaying their trunks, and they're swaying in unison, 14 Elephant's Children in a classroom, after school.

"Well that was a good one," Steven says after I let pass a pause big enough to let things settle. "That was good." He's hard to please.

"Yeah, I liked that," they all start at once. "I liked that one. We should do more like that. That was really, really good."

"Tell me," I say.


"Tell me why. What makes Kipling's story so good."

"Because of the made-up names!"

"Because anything could have happened!"

"Because of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River! Because of that!" Spontaneously then, they once more grow themselves long trunks and start swaying their appendages side to side, all of them Elephant's Children again.

"Who else is as good as Kipling?" I want to know. "Who else makes you want to sing their tales?"

"'The Hobbit'!" Greg says, citing the book and not the author; it's rare, I've learned, for them to know an author's name, one of the many modesty-inducing things they've taught me lately.

"'Swiss Family Robinson'!" Steven offers.

"'The Phantom Tollbooth,'" Jeremy says. "My No. 1 favorite. It's just so crazy. It just is." Matilda gets mentioned, and of course Harry Potter, and I ask them what these books have in common.

"Oh," Robert says. "It's how they take you anywhere. It's how they imagine these things you'd never think of."

Steven turns to the others and asks, "Did you ever read 'The Time Machine'? Have you? My Dad's read it to me."

"But have you read 'The Phantom Tollbooth'?" Jeremy wants to know. "It's just so crazy."

"Read 'The Hobbit,'" Greg insists, his eyes beyond his glasses glowing, his smile convincing, his gestures earnest. "'The Hobbit'" he says. "You're gonna love it. I swear you will. Come on. Just read it. Just try it." I see Chris writing down titles on a page. I see Dana turning to Jillian to tell her about some book whose title, like its author, she forgets. I see Michael turning to Louis and Louis turning to Michael and Casey pulling a text out of his backpack. I see an after-school classroom of rowdy, expressive, sometimes impossibly impulsive kids urging each other to read, declaring their views, setting themselves up for life, for that's what books do, that's why I'm here: to witness the sound of a book-made moment. I let it go on. It's cacophonous, glorious. I wait many minutes, then I speak.

"Hey," I break in. "What do you say we all go Kipling? What if we all wrote a rap song using Kipling words and thoughts?"

"A rap song?"

"Yeah. You know. Full of crazy animals and ridiculous landscapes. Full of secret words like ''satiable' and a crazy river bank."

"The great grey-green, greasy ... " They sing. It grows loud. I wait for the room to quiet.

"Let's do like Robert says, OK?" I whisper, for I have learned that this gets their attention. "Let's imagine the things we'd never think of."

"Yeah, OK," they agree. "OK. A rap song. That's cool. We need paper, though. We need pencils. And can we work together if we want to?"

"You can work any way you like," I say. "Just get what you need, and dig in, bravely."

Dig in for now. Dig in forever. Let books find you friends and be there: always.

By Beth Kephart

A recipient of an NEA grant this year, Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her new book, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," will be released in the fall.

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