For Christmas 1897, the cover of St. Nicholas blazoned forth "Rudyard Kipling's First 'Just-So Story.'" The words were given banner position, in red, at the top of the seasonal cover and then, beyond the advertisements (which included "A Great Christmas Book for Children": L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish), there came a Christmassy frontispiece by Maud Humphrey and, in pole position, "The Just-So Stories. By Rudyard Kipling."
There was, at this stage, no other title, and the generic heading was followed by an explanatory introduction by the author. "Some stories," he wrote, "are meant to be read quietly and some stories are meant to be told aloud. Some stories are only proper for rainy mornings, and some for long, hot afternoons." Stories like these could be changed as much as the inventor pleased, "but in the evening there were stories meant to put Effie to sleep, and you were not allowed to alter those by one single little word. They had to be told just so; or Effie would wake up and put back the missing sentence. . . ."
These bedtime stories for Effie were three in number and the first of them, Kipling said, "told how the whale got his tiny throat." He then began the story: "Once upon a time there was a whale, and he lived in the sea and he ate fishes . . ." And so, with all the casual address of the speaking storyteller, with all the asides ("Have you forgotten the suspenders?") and all the private jokes ("Change here for Winchester, Ashuelot, Nashua, Keene, and stations on the Fitchburg road!"), one of the masterpieces of children's literature got under way.
This beginning to the Just So Stories (the preliminary definite article, and sometimes the hyphen, have led an uncertain existence) is of considerable importance. Kipling's introduction confirms what could never really be in doubt: that these stories originated in the living—and private—exchange between a teller and a listener, and it claims not only to reflect the oral transaction as it took place, but also to give that transaction validity for more than the single child to whom the story was originally told ("but I think if you catch some Effie rather tired and rather sleepy at the end of the day, and if you begin in a low voice and tell the tales precisely as I have written them down, you will find that Effie will presently curl up and go to sleep").1
By thus emphasizing the voice of the storyteller and by setting down the texts "just so" as Effie heard them, Kipling is obviously concerned entirely with words and with their rhythmic alignment. No concession is made to geographical or biological niceties. To the distress of the literal-minded, these are not introductions to natural history. The catalog of the whale's diet is formed for the sake of its sound rather than its accuracy, and although we can imagine "'stute fish" existing as a distinct species, we shall find them in no ichthyology. By the same token, there is no concession made to illustration. Whale, fish, and mariner subsist only in a flux of words, taking on their dramatic shape from the molding of the sentences. Any attempt to impose a fixed form upon them is bound to limit their freedom as performers in a kind of balletic poem. Moreover, if the design of the whole narrative enterprise is to get Effie to curl up and go to sleep, then observable pictures may sadly interfere with the process.
To the publishers of books and magazines, however, such concerns are deeply unpractical. Not even the sensitive Mary Mapes Dodge could allow "Rudyard Kipling's First Just-So Story" to appear garbed only in its own fine rhetoric. The readers expect something to look at as well as to hear. Pictures must be made. So the blithe Oliver Herford is co-opted, and at the start of the tale in St. Nicholas he supplies a decorative title piece and initial letter done in ink and pencil. As the story progresses over the next two page openings its text is fitted into...