Gifts from Richard Adams: Clean Air and A Classic Tale

Gifts from Richard Adams: Clean Air and A Classic Tale

There is nothing that cuts you down to size like coming to some strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.

That’s not a quote about the Interwebs.

It’s from a strange and marvelous tome about a band of rabbits fleeing a housing developer.

Watership Down is more than four decades old and its author Richard Adams. He was born in 1920 and as of this writing, still going strong at 95.

But Watership Down may not be Richard’s greatest late-blooming accomplishment.

Did you know England and Wales owe their improved air quality to him?

The Antidote To “Are We There Yet?”

Adams conceived Watership Down in the grandest storytelling tradition—as a way to avoid the “Are we there yet?” syndrome parents experience the world over. His elder daughter announced,

Now daddy we’re going on a long car journey, so we want you to while away the time by telling us a completely new story, one that we have never heard before and without any delay. Please start now!

Adams spun his tale as he drove, creating plots and settings from the English countryside. His girls loved the story and encouraged him to write it down.

But Adams worked long hours for the British government. World War II had interrupted his college education, but at age 28, he earned a degree in Modern History from Oxford and sat the civil service exam.

For 25 years, Adams climbed the civil service ladder, eventually heading the air quality standards department for England and Wales. Beside Watership Down, he’s most proud of authoring Britain’s Clean Air Act of 1968.

And there he was at age 50, putting to paper his daughters’ favorite bedtime story. He bought a 14-inch legal tablet and wrote after supper.

Adams completed Watership Down in eighteen months. He just wanted a “modest hardback edition” for his girls, but three agents and four publishers rejected the book. Most considered the story too realistic, not proper reading material for kids who want their bunnies sweet and cuddly.

(I’m dumbfounded how often publishers underestimate children. Madeleine L’Engle faced the same prejudice with A Wrinkle in Time.)

In 1972, a small press accepted Watership Down for a 2500-copy run, but they couldn’t pay Adams an advance. Nor could they promote it. But, he says, they “got a review copy onto every desk that mattered.” And the reviews were stellar.

Penguin Books published the U.S. edition and brilliantly marketed it as both a children’s story and an adult allegory.

Long before Harry Potter, Watership Down became a crossover bestseller. The American edition sold over a million copies, and Adams became a literary sensation at 52. In 1972, it won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for the best children’s book of the year. Watership Down remains Penguin’s all-time bestseller.

The Second Oldest Profession

Adams considers himself a storyteller first, a proud member of the “not quite oldest profession.” Joseph Campbell, his inspiration, mentor and friend, showed him the way. Through The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Adams

. . . learned that God meant me to be a storyteller. If it wasn’t for Joseph Campbell, I wouldn’t have written anything.

Adams wrote nineteen books after Watership Down. My favorite—Maia, which he wrote to celebrate the “sheer beauty, joy and dignity of physical love.” Maia is a lush epic, an imagined origin story of the goddess who fittingly gave her name to Adams’ birth month.

Richard Adams celebrated his 90th at his local pub, not far from the real Watership Down. The village presented him with the First Annual Whitchurch Arts Award for Inspiration. I haven’t heard how he’s celebrating this year, but please join me in wishing Richard a joyous 94th and many more!

Have you read Watership Down? Do you think it’s too much for children?

More About Richard Adams

Artwork: Rabbit by fellow late bloomer Henri Rousseau (1908)

23 Responses

  1. Lindsay
    | Reply

    Thank you for another great post. I read Watership Down years ago, but never knew the story behind it until today. Funny how sometimes the little books no one thinks will go anywhere turn out to be the big winners.

    • Debra Eve
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      Thank you, Lindsay! It’s been years since I read Watership, too, but I loved its realism even then. I think Richard was one of the first to recognize that children are much more clued in than we realize!

  2. Andrew Reeves-Hall
    | Reply

    Hello – a wonderful article. Could you please credit me as the photographer of the picture that you use in your article, since I took it? Thanks.

    ref: http://www.whitchurcharts.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/ARH20100515-1235-44957-Small.jpg

    Original article: http://whitchurcharts.org.uk/2010/05/celebration-of-richard-adams-90th-birthday/

    ~Andrew~
    Chair, Whitchurch Arts

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Absolutely, Andrew! Thanks so much. I can’t believe Google didn’t choose Richard as its doodle today.

  3. Michael
    | Reply

    Watership Down is to this day one of my favorite books. I’ve re-read it several times and this post is a remind that perhaps it’s time again 🙂

    Thank you!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Great to see you again, Michael! I keep meaning to re-read it too. My Kindle is so back-logged right now…

  4. OrganisedPauper
    | Reply

    I read Watership Down when I was 11. I absolutely loved it. I loved it then, I love it now I’m 48. I was a sensitive child and grew into a sensitive adult, but Watership Down was never too much for me. Yes it did upset me in parts, it made me cry, it made me angry, it made me incredibly happy, but surely that’s what we want in books, the ability to move us. I think adults sometimes underestimate children. Just because they are young does not mean they lack great emotion or discernment. Watership Down was a great outlet for me and a comfort because it was well written and never patronising. Children often know when they are being talked down to and Adams never did.

    • OrganisedPauper
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      I wish I could edit my last sentence! lol

    • Debra Eve
      |

      I really need to reread Watership Down as an adult. And I agree with you completely, Elaine — Adams wrote stories that acknowledged how complex children really are. Thanks so much for stopping by!

    • Dave Leggett
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      Great article Baby!
      I remember very clearly when the movie came out and Art Garfunkel’s theme from it, “Bright Eyes” topped the UK charts.

      Glad he’s still active and enjoying life as well as celebrating his birthday with a pint (Newcastle?) – can’t think of a better way to welcome in another year : )

      Well Done!

      X X X

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thanks, baby! Yes, I understand he still frequents his local on a regular basis. What a good life.

  5. Chris Edgar
    | Reply

    I don’t recall reading Watership Down, although I may have, because I spent a huge amount of time buried in books as a kid, but I can definitely relate to what you say in the article about Madeline L’Engle, all of whose books I read, even though they had a tendency to terrify me (I don’t think I slept for a few days after reading A Wrinkle in Time). If no one had published her books because they dealt with themes that were too mature and scary for children, my childhood would have been less enjoyable for it.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I agree, Chris. I think a certain amount of danger in adventure stories can prepare kids for what’s to come and spark their imagination (though I’m still not sure how I feel about something like The Hunger Games. Thanks for your input!

  6. Julia
    | Reply

    Hi Debra,
    “Met” you in the early days of your blog, perhaps when taking one of Kristin Lamb’s online social media courses? It’s wonderful to see what you’ve done here! Love the theme, love the articles, and yes, loved Watership Down! Looking forward to e-mail updates. Cheers!

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thanks, Julia. I do remember you from WANA 2011. Has it been that long? Great to “see” you again and will definitely check out your blog!

  7. Laura Best
    | Reply

    It was so interesting reading the story behind the story. I was quite intrigued! Watership Down is a wonderful book.

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thanks, Laura! I always find the “story behind the story” fascinating too.

  8. Hi Debra,

    I love all your late bloomer stories but especially this one. Of course I’m a Watership Down fan and never knew the author story! Will share on FB now. x A

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      Thank you, Annabel. I’m amazed at how many children’s book writers are “late” bloomers. Just shows that the child within never leaves us!

  9. michael guerrieri23@gmail.com
    | Reply

    Could you do an article on betty white

    • Debra Eve | @DebraEve
      |

      I’ll definitely think about it, Michael. She’s been acting forever, so she’s not technically a late bloomer. But she is an inspiration to us all!

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