In a video clip that has been viewed on YouTube (in several versions) by more than 10 million people, a lion emerges from the African wilderness to embrace—literally—two men standing in a clearing. Those men, Anthony “Ace” Bourke and John Rendall, chronicle the events leading up to that heartrending encounter in Christian the Lion, a Delacorte release with a March 10 laydown. And it is quite the remarkable story they tell.

In 1969, the two Australian friends, then sharing a flat in London, were shopping for Christmas gifts at Harrods. Wandering into the exotic animal department, they spied two lion cubs cooped up in a small cage, one of which had already been sold. Captivated by the other cub and horrified at his living conditions, Bourke and Rendall purchased the friendly animal, named him Christian and made a home for him in the basement of their building. Christian happily took to his new life, romping in a nearby church garden, lazing about in the furniture shop where his owners worked and reveling in his local celebrity status.

After about a year, Bourke and Rendall concluded that the quickly growing Christian, who had been born in a British zoo, belonged in the wild. A chance encounter with two actors who had starred in the recent movie Born Free led Christian’s masters to conservationist George Adamson, who was featured in that film, which documents his reintroduction of a young lioness into the wild. Under Adamson’s supervision, Christian too was rehabilitated into the Kenyan wilderness. When Bourke and Rendall visited Kenya a full year later, the lion joyfully recognized them, in the reunion captured on the YouTube clip.

Rendall explains that this footage was lifted from a 1971 documentary about Christian, shot by Simon Trevor, whom he calls “a brilliant wildlife photographer and cameraman.” The author’s efforts to contact the unknown person who posted the clip were unsuccessful and he has no idea how that individual procured a copy of the original film. Yet he is not surprised at the online video’s enormous popularity, noting that he has a copy of the documentary and often shows it to raise funds for the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, of which he is a trustee. “I was well aware of the impact of the footage because there is always a scrabble for tissues when it comes to the reunion sequence,” he says.

John Rendall (l.) and Ace Bourke relax with their pet lion. Photo: Derek Cattani.

Bourke and Rendall first wrote about their life with Christian in a book for adults, A Lion Called Christian, published by Doubleday in 1971. A revised, updated edition of that book is due from Broadway Books this month. Rendall explains that he was already working on an updated version when American viewership of the YouTube video spiked dramatically after several daytime TV talk shows aired the clip.

He and Bourke then drafted the concept for a children’s rendition of the story, which became Christian the Lion. Delacorte has a 100,000-copy first printing on order for the book, which was adapted by British writer Ruth Knowles. Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of Bantam Delacorte Dell Books for Young Readers, worked closely with editors at Random House Children's Books UK (which will publish the book next month) to create the young readers’ edition. The volume includes new photos, additional facts about Christian and Kenya and information about lions and other wild species.

Horowitz says this is her first experience publishing a book inspired by a YouTube video (the jacket art features a burst referencing the clip). “The story would have been utterly intriguing if it ended with the owners responsibly giving the pet they loved back to the wild, after their serendipitous encounter with the Born Free actors,” she says. “But when they add as followup their reunion with Christian, it is an emotionally gripping story. In this case it is 100 percent correct that truth is stranger than fiction.”

Bourke and Rendall will visit the States later this month to promote their books, and are scheduled to appear on Oprah, Today, Entertainment Tonight and The View between March 13 and 20. And, quite fittingly, the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan will be the setting of a book signing on March 19.

What do the authors hope kids will take away from Christian the Lion? “Enjoyment from Christian’s story of course,” Rendall responds. “But we also hope he can inspire children to learn more about the fragility of the environment and the need to protect not just endangered species, but all animals. If Christian can do this, he will be even more of a star than he already is.”

Christian the Lion by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall. Delacorte, $14.99 ISBN 978-0-385-73856-9