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'Redwall' seems wonderfully real — and tasty

In Redwall, your magpies, stoats, squirrels, voles, rats, mice, badgers and hares are not merely woodland critters. They are endlessly complex characters, brave and conniving, spouting amazingly complex dialogue and plotting foul death.

Then there's the sumptuous banqueting.

It's a mix that you as a reader either take to like falling into a warm bath or just don't get at all. Either you're instantly captivated by stories of enlightened interspecies living, dandelion salad and the triumph of decency over conflicted villainy, or you flat don't understand why all these scrawny, dialect-spouting animals can't just get along already.

In the children's literary universe, there is Harry Potter and there is C.S. Lewis and then there is Redwall, which Liverpool author Brian Jacques (pronounced jakes) figures to be in North Wales. Jacques says that the Redwall novels might go on for as long as Jacques himself does: Every year, he likes to take three to four months and visit his little forest, envisioning it from his Liverpool, England, garden — in longhand first, and when he's happy that it's all flowing together, typed on a manual typewriter.

While writing a Redwall book, though, Jacques says that he's totally in Redwall: "I don't answer phones, I don't do this or that; I write."

But, says Jacques, 69, the writing is at a more leisurely pace now.

"I used to write like a fury," Jacques says. Ask him his best book, and he will joke that it's the next one. But really, he says, "Each one, I have special feelings for."

"If I have a special book, it would be Redwall, because it's the one that got me started," he says.

Getting the rhythm with which Redwall characters talk can be daunting. But it does grow on you, and in the end, you too can decipher the woodland dialect of the baby mole: "Ho urr, Oi see. But whurr did zurr Gonffen take ee h'idol's h'eyes to?"

Jacques likes the poem about the grand old dog Tim, because Jacques likes to think about animals and their interior life, especially that of his beloved West Highland terrier, Teddy. Hence his fictional animals decipher layers of meaning, have tragedies and make moral choices, and they are often just so unbearably cute they could spawn their own line of Webkinz.

But the long-term draw about the Redwall series is that it's as much of a lark for adults as it is for the kids: It's comforting in a way that seeing your favorite television series is comforting. You see a Redwall title, and it's like picking up a sigh of relief from the bookshelf.

Redwall Abbey is the emotional heart of the series, but it is not a religious cathedral-type place. It is a refuge, a nurturing place, for animals of all ages. They keep each other safe, dispense justice, defend against nefarious plots — and there are plenty of nefarious plots — and they eat. They eat prodigiously, and they eat stuff you can fix for yourself, because there's even a Redwall cookbook, featuring real-world edible concoctions such as Shrimp 'N Hotroot Soup, Mole's Favourite Turnip and Tater Deeper 'N Ever Pie, Summer Strawberry Fizz and Great Hall Gooseberry Fool.

Jacques said it used to annoy him as a reader to see books that made note of banquets but didn't detail how they work, from soup to fool. And Jacques knows the absence of fine food, because as a child growing up in World War II, when Liverpool was both a frequent target and a place where a child couldn't even get a much-coveted banana.

While the woodland characters get a fair amount of their personalities fleshed out, Jacques is ever mindful of keeping the Redwall engine running. He doesn't want to slow down the narrative by obsessing over character traits and motivations.

"I think like this: Those animals to me are good people and bad people. The good animals have the morals of good people — good mums, good dads, charitable grandmas. The baddies are bad. ... You could live your life by it."

And Jacques is not one of those writers who detests touring and wishes that the fans could just come to him.

"I am a stand-up entertainer. I love to be out on tour, and I love to entertain, and I love children."

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