A Boy and a Jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz, illustrated by Cátia Chien

A Boy and a Jaguar, illustrated by Cátia Chien, is the moving memoir by Alan Rabinowitz that tells the story of his childhood love of animals and the stuttering that shaped him and informed his life as an adult. Written in an elegantly simple style, Rabinowitz's story has an element of the almost-magical that can read like a fairy tale, a quality matched by Chien's lush illustrations, sometimes hazy and moody, sometimes brightly expressive. Happily, especially for the jaguars of Belize, Rabinowitz's story is entirely true. Picture book biographies are invaluable in my library where many students are reading below grade level, and, with its well told story of perseverance, study and action,  A Boy and a Jaguar has become a staple for me. 

Alan Rabinowitz begins his story at the Bronx Zoo where he is whispering to a jaguar caged in a bleak, bare room. He tries to explain his conversation to his father, but his "mouth freezes," just as he knew it would. Alan is a stutterer, and he tells the reader that if he tries to "push the words out, my head and body shake uncontrollably." The physicality with which Rabinowitz describes the effects of his stuttering are immediately understandable for young readers. The depths of the emotional effects of stuttering are also powerfully communicated as Rabinowitz, who was born in 1953, writes of being put in a class for disturbed children despite the fact that he is not disturbed. As his teachers explain, whenever he speaks, he disrupts the class, causing Rabinowitz to wonder, "The teachers think I am broken. Am I?"

Alan finds comfort in the company of animals. In fact, singing and talking to animals are the only two times when he does not stutter. Fortunately, Alan's parents are sensitive to his situation and aware of the solace that animals bring him. His room is filled with pets and his trips to the zoo are frequent. Alan tells his pets, and the jaguar in the zoo, that he wants to be able to speak like everyone else and, if he can ever find his voice, he "will be their voice and keep them from harm." Alan's college studies lead him to study black bears in the Great Smoky Mountains and then to Belize where he is the first person to study jaguars.

Alan's studies go very well and he feels at home in the jungle. When he realizes that hunters are killing the jaguars as fast as he can study them, Rabinowitz knows that he has to go to the government and use his voice to speak for the animals as he promised when he was a boy. Rabinowitz ends A Boy and a Jaguar with two deeply moving moments - one in front of the prime minister of Belize where he has only fifteen minutes to make his case (which he does, leading to the world's first and only jaguar preserve) and another where he comes face to face with the largest jaguar he has ever seen and the two commune.

Rabinowitz, who founded Panthera a group with the mission to "ensure the future of wild cats through scientific and global conservation, makes crystal clear how closely linked his disability is linked to his passion and life's work in a way that I am sure children will be able to grasp. On the back flap of the jacket there is a brief Q&A where Rabinowitz talks about the way stuttering shaped his life and big cats and jaguars, saying that he "feels lucky to have been given the gift of stuttering," sure that without it he would not have ended up on the "path of his passion - saving big cats."

Source: Review Copy

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