The Scientist and the Promise

9780547875071_hresA Boy and a Jaguar
By Alan Rabinowitz
Illustrated by Cátia Chien
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, Boston, $16.99)

People who don’t fit in with others often identify strongly with animals; sometimes, they spend their lives advocating for those who cannot speak for themselves. One such person is Dr. Alan Rabinowitz. The world’s foremost expert on jaguars and one of its most prominent conservation and field biologists, Rabinowitz is also the CEO of Panthera, a conservation charity dedicated to saving wild cats. But the science who now addresses government officials about the importance of conserving species and habitat once struggled to speak.

In A Boy and a Jaguar, Rabinowitz recounts his own painful journey from childhood stutterer to eminent field biologist. At school, young Alan’s teachers berate him; he soon learns to distance himself from others. He finds solace from the humiliations of the human world with animals. A favorite place is the Bronx Zoo, where he feels a particular connection to a solitary jaguar who lives in a bare cage. He vows, someday, to speak for those creatures who, like him, cannot speak for themselves.

Rabinowitz’s first-person, present-tense narrative gives A Boy and a Jaguar its immediacy. He invites readers directly into his emotions, both the hurt he experienced in childhood and the peace he finds in the natural world. Cátia Chien’s gorgeous acrylic and charcoal paintings further emphasize this tension. One spread captures the pain and isolation of his school days: a tiny Alan, burdened by a large backpack, stares at the ground while a grimacing teacher points at him. The classroom itself is blood red; a few classmates, seated at desks, recede into the dark burgundy of the periphery. Alan is completely alone in his hell. In contrast, the illustrations that depict his fieldwork show forests and jungles bathed in golden, even rosy light. And although most of the book’s human faces are hostile or inscrutable, Chien’s animals, including the jaguars, are neutral, friendly, or curious.

A Boy and a Jaguar is many things: an inspiring autobiography, a narrative about overcoming obstacles, a moving account of the bond between species, a call to action for all the world’s animals. It is also a celebration of a paradox: our strengths often lie in our weaknesses.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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