Culture

Mighty mice

Culture | Novelist Brian Jacques is captivating a second generation of children with his stark portrayals of good and evil

Issue: "No man's land," May 10, 2003

CHILDREN LOVE BRIAN JACQUES'S tales of swashbuckling mice who take on evil weasels and stoats to protect their beloved Redwall. They know that good will triumph over evil and that the difference between the two will be clear.

Mr. Jacques continues that tradition in his second series of books for young people. Castaways of the Flying Dutchman features a boy and his black lab traveling through time and fighting injustice as they come upon it. This spring, Mr. Jacques released The Angel's Command, the second book in that series. In it Ben and his dog fight pirates and rescue a boy being held by robbers in the Pyrenees.

Mr. Jacques's biography reads like one of his adventure tales. Raised near the Liverpool docks, Mr. Jacques went on to work as a merchant seaman, train fireman, policeman, truck driver, folk singer, longshoreman, boxer, bus driver, and stand-up comic before becoming a best-selling novelist. As a truck driver delivering milk to a school for the blind, Mr. Jacques began volunteering to read to the students. Soon he was weaving his own stories, relying on vivid descriptions and dialects to charm his listeners.

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Mr. Jacques's themes are drawn from lessons about courage and decency he learned as a child during World War II. They are lessons important for today's children to learn as well. WORLD interviewed him by e-mail in March.

Q How have Redwall fans responded to your new series, Castaways of the Flying Dutchman?

A I'm very pleased to say that they've received it very well indeed! It was on The New York Times Best Seller List, USA Today Best Seller List, and The Wall Street Journal Best Seller List, to name a few. It's sold equally well in my home country of England, and I know that foreign rights have been sold to a number of countries. But best of all, my fans, not only the kids but their parents as well, e-mail me through my website (www.redwall.org) and tell me how much they like it! At book signings moms and dads frequently tell me that their entire family reads the books together, which gives me enormous pleasure!

Q It has distinctly spiritual overtones. Why this departure?

A I would differ with you. I think your question implies that my previous novels don't have spiritual overtones. If you read them very closely I believe you'll find that indeed they do have spiritual overtones. In all of my books there is a struggle between the Dark and the Light. Of course, the Light always wins. I try to emphasize the importance of family, of community, of the goals that can be achieved when everyone works together, and at the base of it all is love. "Love thy neighbor" is not just a dry sentiment to me, it's quite real. Such simple words, "Love thy neighbors," and yet so hard for a great many people to practice.

Q Because your books always feature a strong clash between good and evil, do you worry your themes are too heavy for your audience?

A If the struggles between good and evil in my books were too heavy, too lugubrious, my books wouldn't sell as well as they do.

Children understand at a very young age that some things are bad and some things are good. It's a bad thing to hit your brother or sister over the head; it's a good thing to share, to help your mom and dad. It used to be we learned right from wrong at home and church. But that no longer seems to be the case as much as it was when I was growing up. So I try to paint very clear moral signposts at an age when children need to hear very unambiguous messages. "This is good. That is bad. Period. End of discussion." It's not something that jumps out of the text and hits you over the head. I try to tell a good tale, to entertain. If I was any more overt about it, I don't think people would read my books ... they would become heavy tomes about morality, and overly preachy. I think that's a good way to turn children off. It's entirely possible to entertain and instruct at the same time.

Q How do you balance the comedy and drama?

A That, dear Interviewer, is called "craft!" When I'm writing a dramatic scene, I often get so caught up in it that I can't wait to see how it ends! But sometimes the scene becomes so intense that I'll go on to another chapter in which the characters and the situations are comical, or just plain peaceful. It's a way of breaking up the intensity of a scene. Leaving a good dramatic scene at the end of a chapter is also called a "cliffhanger"-like the movie serials I saw as a boy. It makes the reader very anxious to know what happens next!

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