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The Sea Man
     The Great Redwall Feast
Jane Yolen
     Brian Jacques
Penguin Philomel, 48 pages
     Penguin Philomel, 64 pages

The Sea Man
Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen has been called the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the 20th century because of her many fairy tales and story books. She has written over 150 books for children, young adults and adults, along with hundreds of stories and poems. She's a past-president of SFWA and has been a member of the Board of Directors of SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) since its inception.

Jane Yolen Website
ISFDB Bibliography

The Great Redwall Feast
Brian Jacques
Brian Jacques was born in Liverpool in 1939. Early reading of the likes of Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Edgar Rice Burroughs provoked an interest in adventure stories. A particular favourite was Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows. He wrote Redwall for the children at the Royal Wavertree School for the Blind in Liverpool, where as a truck driver, he delivered milk. Alan Durband, a childhood English teacher, read it, showed it to a publisher who offered a 5-book contract for the Redwall series. Brian Jacques hosts his own weekly radio show, Jakestown, on BBC Radio Merseyside.

The Official Redwall Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Two books from children's publisher Philomel share Christopher Denise as illustrator, and, though aimed at different age groups, proved worthy bedtime reads on a reliable test subject, my eight-year-old daughter, Sydnie.

Jane Yolen is the Joyce Carol Oates of children's fantasy -- it seems as if every time I browse through the kids' section this prolific author has added yet another new volume to her shelf (indeed, the publisher's bio counts over 180!). This time around, Yolen has written a fish story -- and the one that gets away is quite a whopper -- inspired by "sworn testimony [obtained in 1663] from sailors who had 'captured a merman.' He was swimming, they said, off the Dutch coast and was caught by a lieutenant in the navy."

In The Sea Man, the lieutenant is given the name Maarten Huiskemp, temporarily in charge of his ship The Water Nix. Huiskemp is an educated man whose Renaissance ideals about humanity's singular superiority are drawn into question following the retrieval of a merman tangled in a fishing net. Thus we have two characters who both -- one figuratively and the other literally -- find themselves like fish out of water.

Any successful tale for young readers must of course include a demographically-compatible character; in this case, it is Pieter, a cabin boy the lieutenant undertakes to school not only in the ways of the sea, but life in general. As you might expect, Pieter's naïve courage ends up teaching both the worldly Huiskemp and a superstitious crew a few unexpected lessons.

Yolen presents a morality tale about the fear of differences and the resolve to overcome ignorant prejudices. Though the setting might strike some as more suited for boys, Sydnie was immediately interested (it may have helped that the story opens with Huiskemp writing a letter to his daughter). She became particularly indignant about the unfairness of the merman's treatment by the ship's crew, so Yolen's message was delivered as intended.

It took two nights to finish reading the story, though with a less-tired kid it could be read in single sitting. It's a bit difficult for my second grader to read on her own, though; I'd guess the book is most suitable for readers aged around ten.

My one complaint is Yolen's habit of describing the sky in the opening paragraph of each chapter. While this apparently serves as a metaphor for the events that follow (the sky progresses by degree from bright and cloud-free to dark and stormy and back again), there are just so many times I could encounter references to the "slate of sky" in one story without getting annoyed. My daughter didn't seem to mind, and I suppose it could serve as an example to introduce the concept of symbolism to beginning readers.

While Denise's artwork depicts key scenes from the text, The Sea Man is not primarily a picture book. Since The Great Redwall Feast is intended for a much younger audience, in this book Denise's illustrations share centre stage with the text by Brian Jacques in what is apparently a sort of primer for the full-length novels.

For the uninitiated, Redwall is a medieval abbey located in the imaginary Mossflower Woods that in various volumes is threatened by an evil horde of pirates who are ultimately undone by a "coming-of-age" young warrior. What makes the Redwall saga different from other such knight-in-shining-armour tales is the conceit of using small animals for the characters -- various mice, moles, badgers, hares and squirrels are the good guys against the evil, and oftentimes humourously stupid, rats. I'm not quite sure why this mixture of cute and the potentially disturbing (bad things do happen) works -- though perhaps it's because the combination is balanced just right -- but I've been reading the series to my daughter since she was six, and she's always been quite enchanted. As with The Sea Man, the subject matter may make you think it's mostly appropriate for boys -- on the contrary, several novels centre on a female protagonist (e.g., Mariel of Redwall) and will always feature at least one strong female character, if not several.

In The Great Redwall Feast, however, matters are toned downed quite a bit to make it suitable for any pre-schooler. There are no menacing Greatrats, or a conflict of any type in which some favourite character might get hurt or killed. It's a poem about how the Redwall creatures, including such pivotal characters in the series as Matthias the Warrior and Constance the badger, "trick" the Father Abbot to accompany them on a spurious quest so that preparations can be completed for a surprise party. If you've read any of the novels, you know the lengths Jacques goes to in describing food (and who wouldn't want to quaff some delicious dandelion ale or warm blueberry scones with hot damson pudding!) and you can expect a lot of this delicious detail here. Such flowery description is not surprising considering Jacques conceived the original tale to entertain children at Liverpool's School for the Blind, which perhaps also explains why this is successful bedtime reading.

Younger children who are unfamiliar with the Redwall books will get caught up in the story of how the unrestrained appetite of Bungo the mole disrupts the party preparations, though I doubt they'll get the ending revealing how Father Abbot knew about the plans for the celebration all along. Though it was sort of simplistic for my eight-year old, she enjoyed hearing the story (despite complaints that it was making her hungry) and could easily read it on her own. But, she, too, didn't quite get the riddle of the ending. Riddles are often featured in the novels, but here I think the attempt to introduce this feature of the Redwall tales to the diaper set doesn't quite come off.

Denise's illustrations are on par with the cover art of the novels, and should help to entice kids to try the longer stories, where I think adult readers will be a lot more interested.

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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