As boy growing up in rural Michigan in 1955, I read many books by Jim Kjelgaard. His genre was young adult fiction aimed at young boys, and at 10 years old, that was me. His books took place in the great outdoors were about hunting, fishing and trapping... activities I have since come to reject. Well, maybe not fishing, I do enjoy fly fishing. Kjelgaard’s books were also about the relationships between animals and humans. These were my ‘Davy Crockett years,’ and I ate this stuff up. The shelf behind the bed in my red-painted bedroom bulged with Jim Kjelgaard’s hardbound books. I read them all, and when I was finished, I read them again. I’m not sure exactly when or how I started reading Jim Kjelgaard, or how his books found their way into my room, but I’m sure my father had a lot to do with it.
Kjelgaard’s narrative was pure word magic. He had a way of leading the reader into the forest to observe the lives of animals in their natural habitat. One minute I was laying in bed fighting off sleep and the next minute Kjelgaard had transported me to a completely different world, to the edge of a pond where I spied on a beaver as it built its dam, or watched in horror as an Great Horned owl snatched a young muskrat from its watery home. And always there was an unmistakable moral seamlessly woven into the narrative: Don’t feel bad for the muskrat, Jim Kjelgaard told his readers through his stories, he was careless, just like some human beings are careless. When you’re not paying attention to what’s going on around you, you become vulnerable and that’s when bad things can happen to you. Nature has its ways of culling the feeble, Jim seemed to say. That’s just the way life is.
Kjelgaard is remembered for his dog stories. His most famous dog story is ‘Big Red,’ which Disney made into a movie. But he wrote about other animals, too: muskrats, beaver, deer, owls, raccoons, foxes and other forest dwellers. The animals in Kjelgaard’s books communicated with each other. I can’t remember if they talked, exactly, but Kjelgaard had a way of putting the reader into the mind of the animal, showing what the world looked like from the critter’s point of view. It didn’t seem weird to my 10-year-old mind that the animals talked in Kjelgaard’s books. Of course they talked, they had a lot to tell us.
Along with the innocence of the 1950s, my idyllic Michigan boyhood drifted away. When I turned thirteen my family moved to California and just like that I was in high school. A couple of years later the Beatles sang ‘I want to hold you hand’ on the Ed Sullivan Show. And soon after, the Rolling Stones told teenagers that they couldn’t get no satisfaction, no matter how hard they tried. In the blink of an eye and the strum of a guitar, the world changed. But I never forgot Jim Kjelgaard’s stories.
Sadly, many of Kjelgaard’s books have gone out of print, though some are available as Kindle downloads on Amazon. I feel sorry that those wonderful stories are not as available to kids today as they were to me. Spiderman? Vampires? Zombies? Star Wars? How boring is that?
I’ve been a student most of my life and sometimes it seemed as if my formal education would never end. Elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and graduate school all helped shape how I view the world. But none of these educational experiences had a greater influence on me than Jim Kjelgaard. Kjelgaard instilled in me love of the written word that has remained with me to this day. I am grateful to this man I never met for teaching me, through his storytelling, so much about the world of animals.
Recalling my childhood, and the influence Jim Kjelgaard had on me, it is not so surprising that I ended up writing books about endangered species for young adult readers.