Corageous rodents in daring adventures

Author Jacques' `Redwall' tales had origins in stories for the blind

Family Matters

September 19, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Get it straight: Despite what you may have read, from newspaper articles to the book jackets themselves, Brian JacquesM-F Redwall novels are not a M-tseries.M-v Even though there are now 17 of them.

M-tI call it a saga,M-v intones the 65- year-old author on the phone from his native Liverpool, the word crashing impressively on the rocky shoals of his throat. M-tIt sounds better than series, doesnM-Ft it? M-fSeriesM-F sounds like breakfast cereal.M-v

Words are important to Jacques (pronounced M-tJakesM-v), whose latest Redwall offering, Rakkety Tam, is out this month. He also sniffs at descriptions of his tales M-y starring mice and other animals in a medieval world M-y as M-tfantasy.M-v He prefers they be characterized as nothing more specific than M-tgood yarns.M-v

M-tWords are great things, now,M-v he says. M-tYou mustnM-Ft abuse them. Words, they can ripple like a stream or they can be like sharp jagged mountains, or they can be soft as clouds or hard as iron.M-v

Descriptions like that have brought young readers back to the ancient Abbey of Redwall since the title novel was published in 1986. They come back knowing M-y because Jacques often says it M-y that the good characters of Mossflower Country (or M-tthe goodies,M-v as he calls them) will triumph in the end. And knowing the best-selling stories theyM-Fre embarking on are 300 to 500 pages long.

M-t M-FLong the way, some of the good ones get killed in my books,M-v Jacques says. (He pronounces book to rhyme with fluke). M-tNot everyone in my books goes over the hill into the sunset, do they? They read to the end because itM-Fs a good yarn. ItM-Fs a good story.M-v

JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of The ChildrenM-Fs Bookstore in Roland Park, where Jacques will sign his book next Sunday, said the author holds readersM-F interest with rich detail. M-tThey can really get a picture in their mind of what is going to happen, of the battles or the food,M-v Fruchtman said.

The warrior mouse

As a child, Jacques pored over classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey. One of his favorite books was Wind in the Willows, another story in which animals take on human qualities.

But Jacques quit school at age 15, and was 47 by the time he published Redwall. He had worked as a truck driver, a playwright, a boxer and a longshoreman. He was a stand-up comedian and a folk singer in a group called the Liverpool Fishermen.

He had volunteered to tell stories at a local school for the blind. As time went on, he made his tales more and more vivid to stick in the minds of his unseeing audience. The Redwallseries was born.

Its world has nary a human being, but plenty of well-meaning woodland creatures and evil vermin.

M-tKids always ask that: M-fWhy do you write about animals?M-F M-v Jacques said. M-tAnd I say, because animals are better people than people.M-v

M-tI say to the kids, you are the warrior, you are the mouse. Many say, the mouse? A mouse is only little, in the scheme of things, like a kid is.M-v He tells them thatM-Fs why these warriors win. M-tTheyM-Fre not going to do it by any magic. TheyM-Fre going to do it by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.M-v

Cushioning realism

Kelly Vikstrom, young adult specialist at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, said that while JacquesM-F stories are full of bloody, epic battles, the furry creatures cushion the realism for young readers.

M-tThey can handle a more grueling adventure story when itM-Fs not so real, when itM-Fs not people,M-v she said. Rakkety Tam (Philomel Books, $23.99) tells the story of Rakkety Tam MacBurl, a freelance mercenary squirrel who sets out with his mate Wild Doogy Plumm to rescue two kidnapped Redwall maidens. He comes up against Gulo the Savage, a merciless wolverine on the hunt for his brother, whom he suspects is hiding within the abbeyM-Fs peaceful walls.

One reason Jacques doesnM-Ft like the labeling of his work as M-tfantasyM-v is that it encourages comparisons with another, more fantastically successful series M-y er, saga? M-y by a British author. Jacques says heM-Fs never met J.K. Rowling, who began publishing novels about wizard-in-training Harry Potter in 1997. Though Redwall came first, Rowling has sold 254 million copies of her books, compared with JacquesM-F more earthly 14 million worldwide. But Jacques wonM-Ft rain on RowlingM-Fs parade.

M-tHarry Potter is a good thing, you see,M-v he said. M-tBecause if Harry Potter gets kids reading, people will say, M-fHey, have you read the Redwall stuff?M-F ThereM-Fs room for both.M-v

Technology, creativity

But less directly, Jacques makes it clear he doesnM-Ft necessarily want mega-fame. He has turned down offers, for example, to make his novels into video or computer games.

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