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Brian Jacques dies at 71; author of 'Redwall' children's fantasy novels

Brian Jacques wrote in the British tradition of anthropomorphic literary animals and pop medievalism when he created one of the most popular fantasy series in contemporary literature. He preferred to say that he wrote a 'good yarn.'

February 13, 2011|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Brian Jacques liked to say that he wrote "a good yarn."
Brian Jacques liked to say that he wrote "a good yarn." (Ken Hively, Los Angeles…)

Behind Brian Jacques' hugely popular "Redwall" series of children's fantasy novels was milk, tea and a bit of serendipity.

As a milk deliveryman in his 40s in Liverpool, England, he was invited in for tea at one of his stops, the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind, and soon volunteered to read stories to the children there.

He found the plots "dreadful," preoccupied with the "here and now" of teen angst and divorce. "I thought, 'What's wrong with a little magic in their lives?'" he told the New York Times in 2001.

It took Jacques — pronounced "Jakes" — seven months to hand-write an 800-page manuscript. He stuffed the pages into a grocery bag and handed them to his former English teacher, who shopped the novel around without Jacques' knowledge.

In 1986, a British publisher bought "Redwall" for a little more than $4,000 and gave him a contract for four more books. One of the most popular contemporary fantasy series had been born.

Jacques died Feb. 5, according to his official website. British media reported that he died in a Liverpool hospital after emergency heart surgery. He was 71.

Drawing on the British traditions of literary animals and pop medievalism, Jacques invented a world set around fictional Redwall Abbey. He populated his good-vs.-evil adventures with feisty creatures of the forest who talked.

The good guys — including mice, badgers and squirrels — always vanquish such villains as ferrets, snakes and weasels. The books brim with riddles, battles and descriptions of lavish feasts, a fascination that Jacques linked to the food rationing he endured as a child during World War II.

"Today we take a 350-page fantasy as sort of the norm; but when 'Redwall' came out, conventional wisdom was that children would not read a book over 200 pages," said Anita Silvey, a children's literary scholar who included the series in her 2004 compendium "100 Best Books for Children."

"There is no one even remotely like him. There is a lot of dialect in those books, and his voice is authentic," Silvey said. "His books are filled with cliffhangers and action and great battle scenes, all of those things that keep a young person turning the pages."

More than 20 million copies of the series have been sold in more than 20 countries, according to his North American publisher, the Penguin Young Readers Group. The 22nd and final book in the series, "The Rogue Crew," is scheduled to be released in May.

Jacques disliked that his fiction was labeled fantasy and preferred to say he wrote "adventure" or "the good yarn," he said in 2002 in the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier, "the stuff you found in the libraries when you were a kid."

He was born June 15, 1939, in Liverpool to James and Ellen Jacques. His truck-driver father taught him to appreciate literature.

At 10, Jacques wrote a story for school about a bird that cleaned a crocodile's teeth. His teacher — certain that it was too sophisticated to be the work of a child — caned him, but the punishment brought a useful epiphany, he often said. He realized that he could write.

When he was 15, Jacques left school to join the merchant marine to help support his family.

A series of odd jobs followed that included longshoreman, railroad worker, truck driver and policeman. He also wrote plays, published poems and with two brothers joined the 1960s folk-singing group the Liverpool Fishermen.

For 20 years, until 2006, Jacques hosted a regional BBC radio show, "Jakestown," that featured selections from his favorite operas.

He often wrote a book a year, basing his anthropomorphic characters on people he knew. He modeled one on himself — Gonff, the Prince of Mousethieves, a humorous hero.

Jacques is survived by his wife and two sons.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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