The story of a child who is fascinated by and whispers to animals may not seem all that noteworthy. But Alan Rabinowitz’s A Boy and a Jaguar, illustrated by Catia Chien, is remarkable in that it tells the story of a young boy whose communication with animals heals him in many ways—and also serves as a launching pad for his career. And the young boy is Rabinowitz himself.
As a child, Rabinowitz stuttered. His mouth “freezes,” he writes in the book, which tells the story in an engaging first-person, present-tense voice. “If I try to push the words out, my head and body shake uncontrollably.” One day, he sees a jaguar at the Bronx Zoo and speaks softly to her. When his father asks what he’s doing, he can’t respond for stuttering.
At school, he’s put in a class for “disturbed children.” But there are two instances in which he does not stutter: when he sings and when he talks to animals.
“Stuttering is about hard contacts in the mouth,” Rabinowitz tells me. “Stutterers don’t stutter when they sing, because the forced air flow keeps hard contacts from happening. With animals, I still stuttered but not nearly as severely, and I could speak full sentences. The reason, it was believed, is because I felt relaxed and unpressured with animals. No expectations. No judgments. So my mouth and body muscles relaxed and let air flow go with minimal hard contacts. Even today, when we know that stuttering has a genetic as well as psychological component, speaking to animals does not overcome the neurological dysfunction that leads to stuttering, but it lessens the degree to which it is exhibited because of the lessened anxiety and pressure. When I was young, they believed stuttering was pure psychological and that animals helped ease this psychological burden, just as we know they do today with people with other issues, such as PTSD.”
The young Alan, as explained in the book, makes a promise to his pets—and to himself. If he can ever find his voice, he will stand up for endangered creatures, keeping them safe from harm. Later, he gets an opportunity to whisper this promise, again at the Bronx Zoo. Visiting the great cat house as he once did, he softly and fluently promises a jaguar that he’ll one day be her voice.
In the meantime, the adults in his life try desperately to help him, despite the fact that he continues to feel “broken,” even after he learns in college to speak without stuttering. “This story,” Rabinowitz adds, “is not just about a stuttering boy who studied jaguars, but about all children who feel sad, abused, or misunderstood by the world at large, then follow their heart to become whole, even stronger than most, from the inside out and discover new realms of the human psyche.” In fact, in a Q&A on the book’s jacket flap, Rabinowitz notes that other children made fun of him as a child, but eventually learned not to bother him. “Far more painful to me,” he writes, “was the lack of understanding shown by adults.”
Rabinowitz is impressed by illustrator Catia Chen’s ability to portray this confusion and fear. “I was blown away by [her] illustrations. Here was someone whom I’d never met, who knew nothing about me, other than the words to the story, and she was able to put my deepest feelings and fears into a visual context that I would never have imagined possible. To portray darkness, fear, wonder, and contentment in the way that she did was truly remarkable.”
Rabinowitz grew up to study jaguars. He writes in the book that in his place of research, Belize, “the jungle makes me feel more alive than I have ever felt.” Eventually, he fights for the protection of jaguars from hunters, even speaking to the prime minister on their behalf. The result is the world’s first jaguar preserve.
Dr. Rabinowitz is now a zoologist and conservationist and the president and CEO of Panthera, a nonprofit organization which devotes its work to protecting the world’s wildcats. He also is a spokesperson for the Stuttering Foundation of America.
But there’s more to his story. The book closes with an extraordinary experience Rabinowitz once had while researching in the jungles of the Cockscomb Basin in Belize, Central America. One day, he meets a huge male jaguar, the biggest he’d ever seen. This is well before the founding of Panthera and after overcoming his stuttering. Rabinowitz has a quiet moment with the jaguar that can only be described as transcendent—and which is handled beautifully in the book. He’s given one more chance to convey his gratitude to a jaguar, the animal who once made him realize his fears could be conquered. It’s a moving moment in a powerful story.
In August, Rabinowitz will see the release of a book for adults (with Island Press), all about jaguars, he tells me. In An Indomitable Beast, he will delve into the evolutionary history of the species, as well as “reveal our new research and my search for the ‘essence’ of the jaguar, something I believe I felt as a child at the Bronx Zoo but could never put into proper context. “
For now, he’s excited about this children’s book, an exceptional picture book memoir that tells the unforgettable story of a promise kept.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.