Kim (that's the cover I had when I read it for the first time when I was 13)
Yesterday I started reading a non-fiction book, Quest for Kim, by Peter Hopkirk (1999). Hopkirk has loved Kim with a passion all his life, and this book tells how he travelled through Pakistan and India in the footsteps of Kim and the lama interspersed with arguments about which real life people Kipling might have drawn on and discussions of the history of colonial (and some 20th century) India and its neighboring countries. He doesn't try to deconstruct Kipling's imperialist baggage, though he gives nods to those who do, and although he notes that Kipling did have his personal prejudices (against Bengali intellectuals, and the Russians, for instance), this is not the point of the book either. Instead, it is a homage to Kim. And I love Kim too, and so enjoyed this quest very much, reading it in as much of a single sitting as circumstances allowed.
Here's the story of Kipling's book in a nutshell. Kim is the son of an Irish soldier and poor Irish mother, both of whom die, leaving him to be raised on the streets of colonial Lahore. When the book opens, he's a kid living by his wits (which he has lots of). He befriends an old lama, come on pilgrimage from Tibet. He discovered to be British and sent to school (paid for by the lama). And he becomes a piece in the Great Game of espionage and information gathering that sweeps across India and beyond.
If you have not read Kim, here's why you might want to.
--Great inter-generational relationship:
The relationship between Kim and the lama is my favorite inter-generational relationship in fiction (at least, I can't, at the moment, think of one I love more). To me, and I think to Kim to, this relationship is the most important thing in the book. Makes me cry every time.
--Kim reminds me of Eugenides (in Megan Whalen Turner's books)
Kim is pretty much, in my opinion, the archetype of the really smart, really smart-aleck thief/trickster boy.
--It's quoted in Code Name Verity
Julie, like Kim, is recognized by the folks in Intelligence as being spectacularly suited for espionage and intelligence gathering, and she is directly compared to Kim: "Only once in a thousand years is a horse born so well fitted for this game as this our colt." (page 81 of CNV).
--It has some great descriptions of British India in the 19th century and you will learn a lot.
Why you might not want to read it:
It's not exactly enlightened
You might get stuck on the unavoidable fact that Kipling is part of the whole British Imperial thing. He gets a bit weird with gender, too. (So does the author of Quest for Kim, who closes the book with a fun game he plays, in which he asks his fellow Kim aficionados who they'd like to be. I guess he doesn't know many women who like Kim, because there really isn't much of anyone for a woman to want to be...)
The language gets a bit archaic-y; Kipling uses thees and thous when the characters aren't speaking English. Takes getting used to.
The fact that one knows the vultures of India are now on the verge of extinction because of chemical poisoning will make you sad every time vultures are mentioned.
The unlucky chance that this is the only copy available to you, and you are deeply disturbed by it.
Moving on from Kim, here are other Kiplings that I re-read.
The Just So Stories (1902) should be read aloud for the sheer magic of the tasty as heck language. The Sing-Song of Old Many Kangaroo ("Still ran Dingo, yellow dog Dingo...") and The Elephant's Child (with its "great grey-green greasy Limpopo...") are the best. Some stories are less good. Can't be helped.
I think everyone should read The Jungle Book, and should do so before seeing or hearing anything from the Disney movie. But if you can't bring yourself to do so, at least read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, one of the short side stories interspersed between the stories about Mowgli. Preferably do so when you are 7 years old or so, like I was:
My reaction when I was 7: "Mongoose love!!!!! Best mongoose every! Bad snakes. Excellent, excellent, young hero mongoose who never gives up and has to fight scary scary terrifying snakes. Mongoose wins. Saves boy who is his friend. Want mongoose of my own."
Stalky and Co. (1899) is a school story, featuring three boys, one of whom borrows from Kipling's own school boy self. It's tremendously entertaining, in a kind of appalling way (for a variety of reasons)...and it blows the conventional pious boy school story stereotype out of the water (although there's no sex. Just saying). Best dead cat in fiction ever.
And finally, Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) should be read by any fan of English children's fantasy. Two ordinary kids meet Puck one midsummer eve, and go on a series of magical journeys back in time, kind off--the journeys themselves are straight historical fiction, and the real magic is Puck himself, and the oak, the ash, and the thorn... It's not a book that's going to knock the socks off the modern reader of fantasy, but it is well worth reading. You will also learn things.