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A Boy and a Jaguar

A Boy and a Jaguar
Written by Alan Rabinowitz and Illustrated by Cátia Chien
Published in 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Grades K-5
ISBN: 978-0-547-87507-1
Book Review
“Animals can’t get the words out, just as I can’t get the words out. So people ignore or misunderstand or hurt them, the same way people ignore or misunderstand or hurt me.” In A Boy and a Jaguar, Alan Rabinowitz recounts his childhood as a boy whose stuttering led to painful misunderstandings by others and feelings of brokenness but also led to his passion for animals and the lifelong bond he developed with them, especially jaguars. There were two things he did as a boy without stuttering—singing, admittedly not well, and talking to animals. As a boy, Alan made a promise to animals, that if could ever find his voice that he would be their voice and keep them from harm. In Belize, he became the first person to study jaguars, and he went on to use his voice to advocate for the world’s first and only jaguar preserve which soon after became a reality. Catia Chien’s acrylic and charcoal pencil-art illustrations captivate readers and help evoke Alan’s feelings of brokenness as well as those of elation and wonder. A birds-eye view of the jaguar preserve will make your heart soar as you see the great cats roam free on the yellow grasslands. A Q&A at the end of the book provides readers with additional context for Rabinowitz’s work, conservation efforts, and stuttering. Sure to engage students from start to finish, this memoir will support students to listen and look closely, to wonder about the power of their own voices, and to consider issues of conservation and discrimination from a new perspective.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades K-5
Studying Memoir.  As a memoir, the book is written in the first-person and provides a model for students for how to tell a story from your own life using “I” for effect. Use A Boy and a Jaguar as a mentor text for student memoirs supporting students to consider how memoirists choose moments from their lives that will impact others in some way. Draw students’ attention to the language choices Rabinowitz uses and how Rabinowitz varies his sentences both in length and structure. Many of his sentences are technically not sentences. Encourage students to reread the book noticing simple, compound, and complex sentences as well as fragments that are used for effect. Building on this craft study, support students to then look at their own personal narrative writing noticing the impact of their topic, their own sentence variety, and the structures they use for effect.
Protecting Endangered Animals. Rabinowitz is the founder of Panthera, an organization dedicated to the conservation of great cats. Following a read aloud of the story, visit Panthera’s website and learn more about the work Rabinowitz and Panthera have done to protect these endangered and highly sought after animals. Dig deeper into the research process and consider having students independently or in small groups study a particular endangered animal reporting through writing, drawing, or speaking about what is being done around the world to protect various endangered species and what we can do to help. Build a text set for students using some of the following titles featured on The Classroom Bookshelf: Kakapo Rescue,
Promises: How Will You Use Your Voice? As Rabinowitz leans in to the jaguar’s cage at The Bronx Zoo we learn that he whispers something to the great creature but are left wondering what those words were. Later, we read his promise to his own pets and to all of the animals of the world that he will use his voice to keep them from harm. Reread the page with Rabinowitz’s promise and support students to share promises they want to make to others by using their voice to do good in the world.
Exploring Feelings through Writing. As a boy, Rabinowitz was sent to a class for “disturbed” children due to his stutter despite his parents’ protests. This experience led him to feel broken. Later, as he explored the jungles of Belize he felt alive. When he was studying the bears of The Great Smoky Mountains he felt at home. Look back throughout the text to track Rabinowitz’s various feelings and the progression he experienced moving from feeling broken to whole. Support students to write, draw, or dictate moments when they have experienced strong feelings. Encourage students to consider moments when they have felt excited and happy as well as times when they have felt alone, frustrated, or unwelcome. Allow for a range of feelings.
Gratitude. The end of the book concludes with Rabinowitz saying “thank you” to a jaguar. Engage the class in a discussion about what they think Rabinowitz was thanking the jaguar for. Open up a dialogue about the word gratitude and support students to share people, places, animals, and experiences they have had that they are grateful for. Encourage students to recognize that sometimes things we persevere through can lead to feelings of resiliency and gratefulness in the end, despite hardship or challenges we may have faced.
Grades 3-5
Fifteen Minutes to Make a Message. When Rabinowitz met with the Prime Minister of Belize he had fifteen minutes to deliver his message. He knew his voice had to be clear, concise, and impassioned. For a person who stutters, he knew this was a great challenge. Support students to consider messages that are important to them and engage students in a speech writing unit beginning with brainstorming, drafting, revising, editing, and delivering speeches. View TED talks on topics you think your students may be interested in noting the topics, messages, and delivery methods various speakers use for effect. TED speakers have 22 minutes to deliver their messages and the subtitle to TED talks are “Ideas that Matter”. What are the ideas your students think matter? Consider filming your students’ speeches and sharing them with families through digital spaces.
Reading and Writing Interviews. On the back endpaper, Rabinowitz shares a Question and Answer session. Support students to notice the kinds of questions that were asked and what his responses reveal about who he is and what matters to him. Then, invite students to write interviews for people in their own communities or in the world-at-large that they would like to interview. Consider people within your school building, family members, community members, living authors of your students’ favorite books, and local leaders working to make a difference. Consider writing a shared interview as a class and sending questions to Alan Rabinowitz himself!
Complexity of Conservation. Rabinowitz shares briefly that Belize is one of the poorest countries in the world, and as such, convincing the Prime Minister to spend funds on the preservation of jaguars may have been an even greater challenge given the economic needs of the people of the country. Discuss with students the complexity of conservation and the need for funding to preserve animals and lands when people locally and globally are also in financial need.
Critical Literacy and Social Justice
Challenging Notions of Difference as Deficit. As a boy, Rabinowitz was hurt by the judgment and discrimination of those who misunderstood his stutter, particularly adults, including teachers. However, Rabinowitz explains in the Q&A as well as in other interviews that his stutter in many ways led to the person he became and the passion he developed for animals. Share other examples of individuals who believe that what makes them different is also what has made them interesting and passionate individuals including Temple Grandin, a spokesperson for Autism Spectrum as well as a writer, speaker, and inventor, William Hoy, a major league baseball player who was also deaf and often credited with the hand signals used in games today, or Spencer West who climbed Mount Kilamanjaro without the use of legs.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Book Website
Houghton Mifflin Author Interview
Illustrator’s Site
Panthera, Leaders in Wildcat Conservation
The Stuttering Foundation
RadioLab Feature Story
Alan Rabinowitz on The Moth
Colbert Report Interview with Alan Rabinowitz
TED Talks
Authored by Alan Rabinowitz
Rabinowitz, A. (2014). An indomitable beast: The remarkable journey of the jaguar. (2nd ed). Island Press.
Rabinowitz, A. (2000). Jaguar: One man’s struggle to establish the world’s first jaguar preserve. (2nd ed.). Island Press.
Figures With Special Needs Who Changed the World
Grandin, T. (2012). How the girl who loved cows embraced autism and changed the world. HMH Books for Young Readers.
Wise, B. (2012). Silent star: The story of deaf major leaguer William Hoy.  New York, NY: Lee and Low Books.
Memoirs for Middle Grades
Ehlrich, A. When I was your age: Original stories about growing up. New York, NY: Candlewick Press.
Fletcher, R. (2012). Marshfield dreams: When I was a kid, a memoir. Square Fish.
Spinelli, J. (1998). Knots in my yo-yo string. Ember Press.
Endangered Animals (Blogged about on Classroom Bookshelf)

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.