At the moment, I’m living in a house on Bainbridge Island, Washington thanks to the magazine for whom I’m interning. And in one of the house’s bookshelves, there’s a copy of Martin the Warrior from the Redwall series.

The first night I got to this house six months ago, none of my housemates were home, so I kinda looked around with nothing better to do. When I found Martin the Warrior, that gave me plenty.

Brian Jacques (actually pronounced “Jakes”; he wasn’t the type for pretentious French crap) and his Redwall series is probably the chief reason behind why I was an English lit major and am as in love with stories as I am. My brother started getting into them a little before I was old enough to read, so by the time I was able to handle books like those at about 8 years old, we had the whole series that had been written up to that point in my house. I read all of them at least twice between the ages of 8 and 12—when Triss came out and I suddenly decided I had grown out of them. But the books did their job in those four years.

When I was reading it that night, I wasn’t sure why I thought I had grown out of them before, other than that I was generally a kind of terrible person between 11 and 14 years old. Granted, the books are a little formulaic and cheesy at times, but they’re medieval fantasy adventure novels about talking mice and rats and rabbits and things. It’s like The Wind in the Willows with swords and battles and mice slaying monster snakes. Who grows out of that?

Not many people, apparently, since the Redwall novels are among the most cherished children’s books of all time. When Jacques died in 2011, major international news outlets broke the news and recordings of videos of interviews with him flooded the internet. It was an international day of mourning.

As far as what makes them so cherished, there are some easy things to point out. Jacques got his start as a writer when he began reading his own stories to the children at a school for the blind in Liverpool, which made for his fantastically descriptive style that focuses on non-sight senses and sensations. As a child, he grew up on fantastical adventure stories who’s focus was imaginative, magical world creation, which accounts for the entire Redwall ethos. And all that alone might do it, but there might be another principle behind Redwall’s success, and the success of other children’s literature.

With friends, I’ve discussed and come up with three different macro-level purposes, or maybe uses, of literature that people usually expect a book to serve. The first and most useless one that I reject out of hand is escapism. Of course, it’s possible to pick up a book in order to detach yourself from the world, and I probably wouldn’t judge anyone for doing this, but it’s hard for me to believe there are any books that try to serve this purpose (except maybe trashy romance novels), and it’s easy for me to believe that going into a book with this mentality will rob the reader of a lot of wonderful stuff. The second and much more useful purpose is prescription, or moralizing. As Professor Chapman said in his Senior Seminar speech to my class, literature is chock full of moral lessons, so it seems to me it could be really good to consider those lessons. The book could have some good insights if it sets out to be prescriptive of life rather than just drawing the reader away from life. But the third purpose, and the one that I find makes for all the greatest and most cherished literature in history, is description. This isn’t description at the micro level like I just mentioned with Jacques writing for blind children; instead, it’s literature as a reflection of life. “Art imitating life” and all. To cite previous examples, The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t have any particular thing to say about how the world should be or how people should act (prescription). It wants to describe the world as it (thinks it) really is and make points to that end, about how meaning can stand in the face of nihilism, or how the world isn’t a fairy tale of everyone being saved by miracles and lovers living happily ever after, but that makes the real world better, more meaningful, in a way.

A common assumption about children’s literature, or children’s media in general, is that it’s supposed to be prescriptive. It’s supposed to work toward the end of teaching children valuable lessons about honesty and perseverance and generosity and stuff. And we tend to assume that children aren’t ready to deal with descriptive literature since they lack the breadth of experience to even understand what something like The Catcher in the Rye is getting at. Of course, it’s pretty hard for me to claim that this makes children’s literature, or any kind of children’s media, less “great,” and it’s also hard for me to claim that it makes it less cherished. After all, Aesop’s fables and Sesame street are totally prescriptive in their end goals, but both are timeless.

What I can argue, I think, is that those examples are cherished specifically because they are so effective at achieving that goal, not because of anything more intrinsically or artistically valuable. A little kid probably likes watching Sesame Street because of the colorful, imaginative, and fun characters, but an adult probably likes it because it helps them raise their child with good values, not because they like singing along with Big Bird and Snuffalupagus themselves.

But, when it came to Martin the Warrior, I was sitting in the house by myself and enjoying it for its own sake. It was in part due to the wonderful sensory descriptions of everything, but I think it was also because it didn’t condescend to try to teach me a moral lesson. Yes, there’s lots to learn from the books about bravery and standing up against evil to protect the innocent, but I think it’s a byproduct of the book’s reflection of real life in its fantasy setting. I remember, as an 8 year old, that this was the first book to really challenge me with the real world. (SPOILERS, if you care) Rose, one of the main characters, and the most sympathetic one, unexpectedly but realistically dies in the end, which devastated me as a kid (END SPOILERS). Approaching the climax, I, of course, had the idea of Martin and Rose overcoming the tyrant Badrang and living happily ever after. Being as old as I was, and having been exposed to the media given to me at that age, this was 100 percent inevitable to me. I mean, they were the heroes after all, and the good guys always win and live happily ever after. But this book broke it to me: “Sorry, that’s not the way the world is.” Did I learn anything about how to behave as a moral person through this? No. It was a description, not a prescription.

I didn’t know the distinction at the time, but I think that’s why it, and lots of other wonderful children’s literature that has the courage to do the same thing, stuck with me and millions of other people. Assuming that children’s literature, or any literature or art of any kind, is supposed to be prescriptive tragically limits both literature and all the ideas and insights you could be getting from it, even if you’re 8 years old.

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