Noted zoologist Alan Rabinowitz has dedicated his life to wildlife conservation. He is president and CEO of Panthera, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting the world’s wildcat species, and has written numerous books and magazine articles on the subject. Rabinowitz boasts an even more personal accomplishment: he overcame his childhood struggle with severe stuttering, a hurdle he spotlights in his first children’s book, A Boy and a Jaguar, which also conveys his passion for and skill at communicating with animals. Due from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 6, the picture-book memoir features acrylic and charcoal pencil art by Cátia Chien. Fresh off a trip to India to observe tigers, Rabinowitz spoke with PW from his home north of New York City about his incentive for sharing both of these integral aspects of his life with young readers.
After writing extensively for adults about wildlife conservation, why did you decide to pursue a book aimed at children?
Writing a children’s book was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t know quite how to do it. I’d been interviewed on NPR and various TV programs. Literary agent Anna Olswanger heard my story, and called me to say that it would make a great children’s book. I wanted to reach a young audience – that’s the group who can make a difference. If I want to save the cats, there’s only so much I can do. It’s really going to be up to young people.The young narrator of A Boy and a Jaguar is a stutterer who is unable to communicate with his peers or adults, but finds his voice when he talks to animals. How closely does his story align with your own childhood experience?
Very closely. I have no memories of being able to speak without severe disfluency, and I remember a childhood filled with fear and pain. I went to New York City public schools in Far Rockaway, Queens, back when no one understood stuttering. So they put me in special classes, along with other students who weren’t “normal” – kids with Asperger’s, dyslexia, ADHD, and other conditions that no one understood – and all the other kids made fun of us and called us “the retarded class.”
Did that humiliation at school compound your problems speaking?
It made me realize that adults thought I was broken, so I gave up trying to communicate with them. I knew I was normal, and my parents thought I was okay, but there was no way to fight the school system. Outside of that, I was given drugs, was hypnotized, and even underwent shock therapy, which people thought could reset my brain. Back then, it was assumed that stuttering was psychological, but now we know it has physiological roots based on a genetic anomaly. At one point, I remember thinking, “What’s the point of trying?” and just stopped talking to adults.
When did you realize that you could talk to animals without stuttering?
I realized that early on. I had small pets, like chameleons and garter snakes, and when I talked to them, all the stuttering dropped away. At school, I was totally mute, and didn’t even try to convey what was in my head. When I’d get home from school, I’d take my pets into my closet and talk to them in the darkness. I sensed they could feel my emotions, and they let me be me.
So you really identified with those pets?
Yes, in several ways. Not only did they let me be expressive, but I realized early in childhood that people mistreat animals because they have no human voice. They can communicate with each other, and they have feelings, but they can’t express them in a human voice, so people feel free to flush pet fish down the toilet and put animals in cages in zoos. I don’t believe humans would do that if animals could speak and say, “Don’t do this to me!”
In addition to talking to his pets, the protagonist of your picture book is happy when he visits the zoo. Did you also find comfort there?
Yes, my father often took me to the Bronx Zoo. He knew that it was the one place I was happy, and it was one of the only places I remember smiling and laughing. I loved one building in particular: the lion house, where there were rows of concrete cages, and the sound of roaring and the smells were so overwhelming. I remember thinking, “This building is me.” There was all this power and strength locked behind bars with no voice, and nowhere to go. That’s how I felt. I was locked away in my head and couldn’t get out. I had no voice. But with those animals, I felt no nervousness or tension, and without those psychological barriers I could talk virtually fluently.
And did you, like your fictional alter ego, gravitate toward a jaguar in the zoo?
Yes. There was only one old jaguar at the Bronx Zoo at the time, and he was the animal I was attracted to most. Jaguars are more wary and quieter than other large cats. Instead of roaring and growling, this jaguar sat back and watched. I talked to all the cats in the zoo, but I felt that I could really be me around that jaguar – I could feel its strength and feed off that strength. And I would tell him over and over again that if I ever found my voice in the human world, I would try to find a place for us, and speak up on behalf of animals.
How did you go about keeping that promise?
When I was 19 and in college, my parents learned about an experimental program in upstate New York that only accepted the most severe stutterers. They enrolled me, and I remember feeling as though I actually fit in, and felt more comfortable there than in the outside world. The program was filled with other young people who, like me, were more misunderstood than anything. There, we learned how to use tools to avoid stuttering, and I practiced and practiced and practiced. There’s a lot of recidivism with stuttering, and I refused to go backwards.
So you had at last found your voice.
I was fluent in the world of people, but that world didn’t hold much interest to me anymore, since I had spent so much time alone in my own head. Though I had my voice, I was still different inside, and was more comfortable either with animals or in the wilderness. It was the early 1970s, and animal ecology and wildlife biology had just become part of schools’ curricula, and that opened up a new world for me – and set me on my career. I realized that I could do two things I loved: work in the world of science and help animals.
What message do you hope children glean from A Boy and a Jaguar?
I didn’t want this to be only a book about a boy who stutters, who grows up to save jaguars. I wanted it to be a book about any child who feels rejected, who has a real or perceived handicap, and that covers most children. The majority of children feel completely misunderstood at some point, and what I want my book to say to them is that they can turn that feeling of being completely alone into a strength. If I’d read a book like this as a child, it would have made a big difference.
Do you envision any other children’s books in your future?
I’ve been thinking about that recently. This book is so personal. I think my next book wouldn’t be about me as a child. In my books for adults, I write about my adventures with tigers, leopards, jaguars, and other big cats around the world. I think I’d like to write a children’s book relaying some of the incredible experiences I’ve had, but I really don’t want to write it as an adult talking to children. The idea of taking my adventures and knowledge and telling that story through the eyes of a child is much more exciting to me.
A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illus. by Cátia Chien. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $16.99 May ISBN 978-0-547-87507-1