Prather’s Pick: ‘A Boy and a Jaguar’ gives voice to those with speech issues

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“A Boy and a Jaguar” is the true story of Alan Rabinowitz who struggled with stuttering as a boy. The book’s beautiful illustrations, rendered in acrylic and charcoal, were done by painter Catia Chien.

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Diane Prather

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Courtesy Image/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

"A Boy and a Jaguar," by Alan Rabinowitz

One of the wonderful things about children’s literature is that kids often can identify with the books’ characters and their situations and, as a result, can learn how to turn bad situations into positive ones. That’s the case with this week’s book.

The book begins as Alan, a young boy, is standing beside a cage in the great cat house at the Bronx Zoo. Inside, an old jaguar is lying close to the cage’s bars with her eyes closed. Alan wonders why the jaguar is in a bare room. He gets up close to the cage and whispers something to the cat.

Alan’s father wants to know what he has whispered, but the boy can’t answer. Alan is a stutterer, and no matter how hard he tries, the words won’t come out.

In fact, his body shakes uncontrollably when he tries to say the words.

At school, Alan has been placed in a class for disturbed children, even though he is not disturbed. Teachers argue that he disrupts the traditional classes. Alan’s parents have tried to get help for their son, and doctors have tried everything from medicine to hypnosis.

Nothing works.

However, Alan can sing. He can speak fluently to his pets, too. After school, he takes the animals — a hamster, a gerbil, a green turtle, a chameleon and a garter snake — out and talks to them.

Alan realizes that the animals can’t get their words out, either and, as a result, people ignore, misunderstand and hurt them sometimes so he makes them a promise. If he can find his voice, he will speak for them.

That goes for the jaguar at the Bronx Zoo, as well.

Alan learns tricks to get him through high school, and when he’s enrolled in college, a teacher shows him how to be a “completely fluent stutterer.” For the first time, Alan can speak, but he still feels broken inside. That’s when he begins studying wild animals in their environment, such as black bears.

Alan’s studies take him to the jungle in Belize to study jaguars. It disturbs him that hunters are killing the big cats, and he decides to use his voice to help them — just like he promised his pets and the old jaguar.

That’s just what he does. The book ends on a gentle note.

Rabinowitz is a zoologist and conservationalist and president and CEO of Panthera, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting the world’s wildlife species. He writes, too, and is an advocate for the Stuttering Foundation of America.

On the inside cover of the book, there is a Q&A section with Rabinowitz. This book is outstanding.

“A Boy and a Jaguar,” with a 2014 copyright, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It costs $16.99 in hardcover and also can be found in the children’s room at the Craig branch of Moffat County Libraries.

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