Brian Jacques, Mariel of Redwall (Firebrand, 2003; originally Morrow/Avon, 1991)

As we know all too well from watching the news and reading the paper, life is not always easy, especially for children. But children possess an inner strength that, with the right encouragement, can be tapped to bring out the best in them.

That's what Mariel of Redwall is all about.

Written by Liverpool's Brian Jaques, it is the fourth in his children's series about Redwall Abbey. The characters in the books are all animals who live in Mossflower country, where no humans exist. The animals are split into good and evil depending mostly on their species. Foxes, weasels, snakes and rats are considered bad; mice, otters, rabbits, and moles are good.

In this tale, Mariel, a young mouse, and her father, Joseph the Bellmaker, are captured by Gabool, a searat pirate king who imprisons them because he wants to know the secret of a bell her father created. Her dad won't tell, and she, being a strong-willed child, fights her captors and escapes, eventually making her way — through the help of some critters she meets on the journey — to the safety of Redwall Abbey. She can't recall who she is, however, and gives herself a new name: Storm Gullwhacker (after a storm she survives and her weapon, a knotted piece of rope she uses to fight off hungry sea gulls). When she finally recalls, she vows vengeance on Gabool, and sets off on her own to find him. Luckily for her, the good folk of Redwall offer her some (at first) unwanted assistance.

While this is a good read and a great inspiration for kids, I was troubled by Jacque's formulaic approach: this book almost mirrored its predecessor, Mattimeo. Young mouse is in trouble. A party sets off on an adventure. While they are gone, the abbey is beset by raiders.

Without giving too much of either book away, there are so many similarities that I had to wonder why they were placed so closely together in the series — it seems to make these similarities all the more evident. Then I took a look at Jacques' Web site and realized that if you go in chronological order, Mariel is No. 6, while Mattimeo is No. 10. That helps, but I have to hope the rest of the books don't follow the same formula. Because children are sharp, and I think they'll soon pick up on it.

Overall, though, this is a delightful read. Jacques is no Pollyanna when he writes — there's tragedy, and death, and hard lessons to learn. But he's also not all gloom, doom and gore. His works gives enough of a positive message to be inspirational, without going over the top and candy-coating life's issues.

[Patrick O'Donnell]

For more on Redwall, go here