Re-reading the First Novel I Ever Read

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Allison Russell

Staff Writer

Writer. Reader. Watcher of exorbitant amounts of television. Allison is a Michigan native with an MA in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon. She earns her living writing for other people and then writes for herself at night. She currently lives outside Pittsburgh with her beloved dog Gulliver, who is kind of a jerk. Follow her on Twitter @AllisonPageRuss or on Instagram @read_write_and_be_merry.

I read my first novel when I was eight years old, and I wrote my first book review right after.

“I thought it was exciting and cool.”

Insightful, no? That’s what I wrote on the inside cover of Redwall by Brian Jacques. Above it is a second inscription from my dad.

“Allison’s first novel read, completed with Dad, July 10th 2001.”

I’m 23 now, and while I’ve treasured this book with its pen inscriptions since I was eight, I’ve realized that I don’t remember much about it. So I decided to read Redwall again–15 years later–and share the experience with all of you.

Before the Re-read

Here is everything I could remember about Redwall prior to re-reading the book:

  1. All of the characters are talking animals who speak in pseudo-old-english.
  2. They live in a big castle called Redwall.
  3. The good animals are at war with some bad animals.
  4. There is a dapper rabbit named Basil.
  5. There is a mouse named Mattimeo (but I don’t think this book is about him).
  6. There was a TV cartoon adaptation of Redwall, which I used to watch with my family on Sunday mornings.
  7. There was a scene from the aforementioned cartoon in which Cornflower (the mouse love interest?) is basically waterboarded on a waterwheel by the evil bad guy rat. This scene has stuck with me in VIVID detail.

In a sense, I was diving into the book with fresh eyes. I expected a lot of the details to snap back into focus as I read, and I even expected some real childhood memories to come back too. 

(Spoilers ahead!)

After the Re-read

If you’ve never read Redwall (or if you read it a long time ago like me), allow me to give you a refresher. An evil rat villain named Cluny the Scourge, who has an eyepatch and a poison barbed tail, is leading a rat army in a battle for Redwall Abbey. No joke, he’s one of the best fictional villains of all time. He kills anyone–even rats on his own team–taunting them as they die: “Tell the devil Cluny sent you.” Iconic.

And in fact, a lot of animals die throughout the book. It’s not just the villains killing good guys. The good guys kill the villain right back. You learn from the get-go that people (animals) are going to die, and that it might be necessary to kill some bad guys to save some good guys. I’m kind of surprised that I had handled this much fictional death when I was so young, but it does make it all the more triumphant when our young mouse hero Matthias finally saves the day, wielding the sword of Martin the Warrior and fulfilling his destiny.

So some of my memories of Redwall before the re-read were wrong, like how Redwall is not a castle; it’s an abbey. But a lot of my memories were spot on. Like how the characters are all talking animals and they do speak in pseudo old English and species-specific dialects. It gave me a really satisfying feeling of nostalgia or deja vu whenever these memories snapped back into focus while I was reading. Suddenly I could remember characters like Martin the Warrior, the mythic hero. Or Methuselah, the wise old mentor. Or Constance the badger, who’s just generally badass. But even as many of these details came back to me, I still got to be surprised by a lot of characters and plot points I had totally forgotten about.

Unfortunately, the re-read didn’t jog any childhood memories as I thought it might. I expected to recall some long forgotten scenes of me and my dad–perhaps reading the funny sparrow dialect aloud or acting out the battle scenes. Instead the only memories that came back to me were the ones from within the story. I wonder if the TV show has anything to do with that, since I had certain characters and plot points reinforced to me over the years. I can actually remember a couple instances of my dad and I watching the Redwall cartoon on Sunday mornings, even though I can’t remember us reading the book together. That’s a little sad, but I’m glad I have those two inscriptions inside Redwall. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have remembered my first novel at all.

And you know what? I still think it was exciting and cool.

Do you remember the first novel you ever read? Have you read it since? Comment to share how the re-read stacked up to the original read!