Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
Kim Book Poster Image
Classic about complex Indian cultures best for older teens.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kim delves deep into the many religions, cultures, and countries vying for power in India at the turn of the 20th century. Through Kim's eyes, readers also learn about the rigid caste system in which the types of opportunities and limitations a child will have all his or her life are predetermined. The way Kim moves from culture to culture encourages readers to think critically about the validity of class and cultural differences.

Positive Messages

One of the strongest beliefs held by Indian people of all religions in Kim is that it's a blessing to help the poor, and especially to help poor holy men, like the Tibetan lama. The novel also shows readers that opportunity, not class, determines what a child can accomplish.

Positive Role Models & Representations

One of the biggest questions raised in Kim is what role model the boy will choose to follow in life: the holy Teshoo Lama, the powerful, practical horse trader Mahbub Ali, Lurgan Sahib the gem trader, or the English or Irish soldiers, such as Colonel Creighton, who sees Kim as belonging with his father's people. All of these men show kindness to Kim and teach him valuable lessons and skills. The lama and the white men ensure that Kim gets a formal education. Mahbub Ali and Lurgan Sahib teach Kim essential skills of discretion and observation. But most of these men have mercenary reasons for helping Kim; only the lama has total faith in Kim and cares about his soul.


Characters threaten each other, or mention having been attacked, but a relatively short portion of the book is graphically violent. In one scene, Kim comes upon two men who have been stabbed and are bleeding. Later, he witnesses a battle between Russian and British soldiers, and men are stabbed and shot. In another scene, a Russian soldier punches the lama and injures him, which is particularly shocking given the lama's spirituality and advanced age.


Kim flirts with and kisses the Woman of Shamlegh. One of the women Kim meets is a known prostitute.


The word "hell" is used in a religious context. Irish and British characters call dark-skinned Indians the "N" word a few times.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Many Indian characters, including the young boy Kim, smoke tobacco from a hookah pipe. Opium is used as a way to control people involved in the Great Game; spies will plot to drug somone to stop him from from delivering a message, for example. One person uses opium to stave off hunger.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Kim is widely considered to be Nobel Prize-winning author Rudyard Kipling's greatest work. The novel depicts the world of a half-Irish white boy finding his way amid the many religious, cultural, and political factions vying for power in India at the turn of the 20th century. Note that, though the main character is a young boy age 11 or 12, it's a stretch to call Kim a children's book. The philosophical, religious, and historical concepts presented in the novel are complex, and will be best understood by teens and adults. Given that, the amount of violence in the book (a battle scene, a few shootings, stabbings, punches) should not be disturbing, and readers should be able to see that drug (opium) and tobacco use is part of the intrigue and culture of the book. Irish and British characters also call dark-skinned Indians the "N" word a few times. Readers of any age should select an edition that includes a glossary, as many unfamiliar words are used. A film version of Kim, made in 1950, is available on DVD.

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What's the story?

The main character in KIM, the masterwork by Nobel Prize-winning author Rudyard Kipling, is Kimball O'Hara, a poor half-Irish boy growing up on the streets of Lahore, India, living off of his wits and keen powers of observation. Kim becomes the "chela," or disciple, of Teshoo Lama, a Tibetan lama who is on a spiritual journey to find the "River of the Arrow." While traveling with the lama, Kim meets a regiment of Irish soldiers who are joined with the British in the Great Game, an ongoing military/political conflict between the British and Russians over power in central Asia. The Irish chaplain sees that Kim is wearing an amulet associated with their regiment and makes the connection that Kim's father was Irish. Once it is noticed that Kim is white, the struggle for Kim's allegiance begins to parallel the cultural conflicts going on in colonial India, revealing much about the country and setting up some difficult choices for the boy.

Is it any good?

Among the reasons Kim is so widely revered are the vast amount of cultural and religious ground the novel covers and the brilliant way Kipling embodies political conflict within his main character. This novel is beautifully written and structured -- with relevant and lyrical poems beginning each chapter -- and always stays grounded in the relatable experience of the bright young boy Kim. This is a fascinating choice for teens who are intrigued by world cultures and religions, and an important book, as well, for students of literature and history.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • How are different cultures and religions portrayed in Kim? Does the author seem to favor any one culture over another?

  • How is Kim's life changed by the white soldiers' discovery of his parentage?

  • Learn more about Kim's world by reading books about colonial India. Also check out Kipling's other beloved books, such as The Jungle Books or Just So Stories.

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