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‘The Tiger Who Would Be King,’ by James Thurber

“THE TIGER WHO WOULD BE KING”

by James Thurber, illustrated by JooHee Yoon,
Enchanted Lion Books, $18.95, ages 6-9

How do you explain violence and war to children when it is unfathomable to most adults? When facts fail to comfort or adequately explain, there’s always fiction.

“The Tiger Who Would Be King,” James Thurber’s fable of a power struggle that erupts in violence, was originally published in the August 11, 1956 issue of the New Yorker under the heading “Further Fables of Our Time.” Newly illustrated in extravagant, inventive fashion by JooHee Yoon, its lessons seem sharply relevant today.

Most fables are a drag; stories with explicit morals don’t usually make for good reading. Thurber’s blunt fable, though, with its astringent prose and flashes of wry humor, is bracing and emotionally resonant.

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“One morning the tiger woke up in the jungle and told his mate that he was king of beasts,” the story begins. “ ‘Leo, the lion, is king of the beasts,’ she said. ‘We need a change,’ said the tiger. ‘The creatures are crying for a change.’ The tigress listened but she could hear no crying, except that of her cubs.”

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An ensuing clash between the tiger and the lion explodes. All the creatures in the jungle join in, picking sides. The battle unfolds literally, bursting into chaos on a double spread. The details are finely wrought and terrifying — a rhino’s leg trapped in a crocodile’s jaws, a chimp’s hands around a bird’s neck. The stripes of both the tiger and the zebra seem to writhe.

Yoon’s arresting palette adds visual depth to the drama: red and green tones are piled on in transparent layers — fur on feather, tails and teeth — making the pictures looks very much like the cyan-red images prepared for use with 3-D glasses.

The horror of the aftermath needs no special effects, though. After all the animals die in the fight, the tiger finds himself alone on the jungle floor: “MORAL: You can’t very well be king of beasts if there aren’t any.”

Is this really a children’s book? Maybe not, but it isn’t any more terrifying than a segment of the news or an overheard snippet of adult conversation or even chatter at school. “The Tiger Who Would Be King” should be reserved for sophisticated children and for adults, too who are looking for moral clarity in the face of grim news.