By Chris Kromphardt
Staff Writer, Justice Administrator
The Media Center at John F. Kennedy Elementary and Junior High School in Spring Valley, IL is a fairly small room, filled with books and other materials available for use by the hundreds of students who go to school there. Its modest size, however, does not betray the considerable influence its contents have had on the countless adolescents who over the years have scoured its shelves for something, anything that looked interesting.
My reading tastes as a junior high student around the turn of the millennium were largely dictated by what those shelves had to offer. This was before The Craze That Was Harry Potter had swept too far through the youth lit landscape. Without a strong guiding beacon, I found myself wandering amongst those stacks looking for something, anything that might appeal to an introverted 12-year-old boy.
The influence of many of my discoveries during this phase of my life still resonate; while I’ve moved on from reading the likes of John Grisham and Richard Adams, Michael Crichton and Terry Brooks, I can fondly remember poring through those books, titillated by some of the foul language and violent scenarios, held rapt by the sheer breadth of the stories they contained as compared to anything I could find on TV (remember: this was before the ascendance of the internet), all while my reading tastes were being decisively honed every day by people I would never meet, and yet, after spending so many hours reading their work, I still felt like I knew them.
Mr. Jacques, who died Monday at the age of 71, was best known for writing the Redwall series of books, and from the moment I pulled that first thick book with a mouse on its cover off the shelf I was forever changed.
For the uninitiated, Redwall is the name of an abbey found deep in the Mossflower Woods. It was the home of all sorts of “good” creatures—mice, moles, squirrels, otters, the occasional hare, and, of course, at least one badger. These anthropomorphized creatures were the protagonists of Mr. Jacques medieval-tinged stories; each species was like its own separate race, from the everyman-archetypal mice to the perilous hares of the Long Patrol brigade who lived at the mountain Salamandastron to the oh-my-God-awesomeness that were the badgers. Of course, what good are protagonists without those who threaten their peaceful way of life, and Mr. Jacques showed devilish imagination at conjuring up baddies who tried to conquer Redwall and its inhabitants: Cluny the Scourge, a rat; Slagar the Cruel, a fox with a harlequin mask; and my favorite, Ferahgo the Assassin, a weasel with impossibly blue eyes who was as merciless as he was brilliant.
These characters brought so vividly to life by Mr. Jacques’ prose—the original Redwall was written by Mr. Jacques for blind children; his descriptions of both feasts and battlefields were therefore a special, sensory-ridden treat—didn’t just inhabit Redwall Abbey and Salamandastron; they lived in my imagination. And they still do. It’s been years since I picked up one of the books, but the first fourteen or so are still sitting on my bookshelves in my old bedroom back at home.
When I learned Monday morning that Brian Jacques, a man I’d never met who was nonetheless the conjuror of more of my juvenile flights of fancy than I’d probably care to admit to, had died, I felt like I’d lost a friend. But I take solace in knowing that I’ll always have the well-read and well-loved books that are sitting in the bedroom in which I grew up—and the memories.
Front page image from penguingroup.com.