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Richard Adams

May 9, 1920, is the birthday of British-born Richard Adams, best known for his first novel, Watership Down (1972), in which he wrote about a band of rabbits and their epic journey to find a new den.  It was one of the first works of fiction about animals that tried to portray realistically how they eat, mate, live, and die.

Watership Down has been a staple of high-school English classes for years.  Despite the fact that it's often a hard sell at first (what teenager wouldn't cringe at the thought of 400-plus pages of talking rabbits?), Richard Adams's bunny-centric epic rarely fails to win the love and respect of anyone who reads it, regardless of age.  As with most great novels, it's a story rich in symbolism that can be read on many different levels.  The book is often praised as an allegory, with its analogs between human and rabbit culture (a fact sometimes used to goad skeptical teens, who resent the challenge that they won't "get" it, into reading it), but it's equally praiseworthy as a rip-roaring adventure.

The story follows a warren of Berkshire rabbits fleeing the destruction of their home by a land developer.  As they search for a safe haven, skirting danger at every turn, we are taken into the band and its compelling culture and mythos.  Adams has crafted a touching, involving world in the dirt and scrub of the English countryside, complete with its own folk history and language (the book comes with a "lapine" glossary, a guide to rabbitese).  As much about freedom, ethics, and human nature as it is about a bunch of bunnies looking for a warm hole in which to hide in safety, Watership Down is a true and enduring classic.

In 1974, Adams wrote his phenomenally popular follow-up novel to Watership Down in Shardik.  In it, the title character is a gigantic bear who is the god of the primitive Ortelgan people.  The hunter Kelderek becomes Shardik's greatest disciple and, eventually, ruler when the bear finally makes its return.  On the surface, the book works as a fantasy adventure; on a deeper level, it explores mankind's relationship with the divine.  "No matter what you want to see in it," one reviewer wrote, "Shardik is a good read."

The author, who also wrote the animal allegory, The Plague Dogs, lives in the south of England with his wife.

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