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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Finalist #11: Scary Stories for Young Foxes

Introduced by Heavy Medal Committee Member Courtney Hague

Stories within stories. The frame for Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker is one of a storyteller weaving scary stories for fox kits on a cold and blustery night. Using this device, Heidicker is able to give us eight scary stories which are deftly strung together to give the reader an overarching tale of two young foxes fighting for their lives, their families, and each other. 

These foxes are written in a way which tries to make them as fox-like as possible.  They are only given the knowledge that young foxes would have and not the human knowledge that we, the readers, bring to this story. The descriptions of “the yellow stench” which we can know is rabies but Mia the fox does not are a great example as they rely on smell. So much of the descriptions from the foxes’ perspectives are about smells which we as humans would most likely not perceive.  The descriptions of Miss Potter’s house are illustrative of this point. We can recognize the things in her home easily but Mia’s descriptions of them point out their alienness to a fox. 

“The walls danced with flames–a forest fire, somehow contained within a small cave.” (86)

Or

“The human unfolded the outer skins from its body, releasing a scent like melting flowers. Its long white fingers hung the skins, one by one, on a dead brown tree.” (87)

These unsettling descriptions of a cozy fire in a fireplace and of Beatrix Potter herself taking off a coat turn things which we as humans would generally find innocuous, or even pleasant, into bizarre and frightening events. The author’s word choice is especially good because the descriptions are apt, but are written to point out the otherworldliness of our world in relation to a fox. 

The idea that these are not just scary stories but instead scary stories for foxes is an interesting idea to explore. Heidicker chooses to not simply give us scary-to-human stories where anthropomorphized foxes are inserted; instead, he gives us stories about rabies and snakes, bear traps and human captors.  That these stories are made terrifying for a human audience is secondary to the fact that they are in fact real-life horrors for foxes.  The strength of this novel lies in its ability to commit to that premise and the skillful way in which Heidicker uses language to create a world which is both familiar and alien in order to make the reader feel as though they are in fact a young fox listening to these stories.

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Amanda Bishop says:

    This book took me by total surprise! What a fun and interesting way to interpret the scary story genre. The concept of writing them as stories that would scare young foxes, rather than human children, was so creative. I think kids will love seeing the parallels between what they are afraid of and what these animals fear. I enjoyed the interweaving of characters and how everything was connected in the end. The setting was beautifully described and characters lovable. I felt myself cheering for them in times of distress.

    My favorite part of the book had to be the tale in which Beatrix Potter appears. I laughed and was horrified! It was so macabre that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read another one of her books without imagining the animals in the way they were described in this book.

    This book was so inventive and fun. I think it really transforms the horror and animal story genre.

  2. Rachel Wadham says:

    For me horror is the trickiest genre to do well for children. You have to make it scary but not to scary, macabre but not too depressing, riveting but offer moments of calm to reset the psyche. There are a few standouts who can rock the genre (Neil Gaiman being one of them) and I was so excited to add to my list this book that also engages in the genre conventions in a way that is extraordinarily approachable for younger readers. The structure of the novel with “today” and a storyteller then telling “yesterday” stories is so well done, with even the pages being different colors to show where these boundaries are marked. I also think this transition offers just the right pacing that allows moments of calm before we return to the other stories and the scary factor. How all this weaves into a complete whole is distinctive for this novel and makes it stand out from others of the genre as well. As was mentioned I think the characterization is also spot on. While personifying the animals they are not so “human” that we still don’t see them as animals and that makes the stories all the more “scary” because that can be seen from both the fox and interpreted though a human lens as well. The unique structure of this book and the approach to the genre makes it really stand out for me.

  3. Molly Sloan says:

    I agree that the stories within the story were a creative and compelling structure for this novel. I loved the way the stories all wove together and each one lost a listener who became too scared to continue. What I love most is that Heidicker brought it around to the truth that stories teach. Stories give us what we need to carry on and make the most of life. The littlest fox, the youngest Mia, has the courage to make it to the end of the great great great great grandmother’s stories and so she is armed with wisdom about rabies, traps, roads, malevolent dictators, the golgathursh and more. The storyteller, senior Mia, had done all she could to prepare the next generation for the dangers of life by arming them with stories. I think that is a beautiful theme–especially as someone who is busy pushing stories into kids hands and a daily basis.

    I do have some serious concerns about this novel. I will wait to address those in a later post. For now I will dwell on the beautiful, purpose giving theme of stories arming us to handle the real life challenges that all of us will certainly encounter. “The Kits of the antler wood knew the stories she had to tell. And while the world was changing, growing scarier with each passing moon, that thought brought some small comfort to her heart.” And it brings some small comfort to me as well, to know that my young readers are likewise armed with the stories my library has steeped them in since early childhood. Long live the library!

  4. Brooke Shirts says:

    I love how this novel takes classic horror tropes and maps them onto the animal world. We’ve got a zombie outbreak (Miss Vix and the “yellow stench”), an attack by the almost Lovecraftian golgathursh, body horror courtesy of Beatrix Potter, and even a shout-out to the Stepford Wives. Love it.

    I’ve seen a lot of readers compare this novel to “A Tale Dark and Grimm,” and structurally, that may be true, but I think the character arcs of Mia and Uly are far stronger than Hansel & Gretel’s (especially Uly’s, whose disability and history of being bullied are handled deftly). Their decision to come together as a team isn’t one that is made lightly or in much of a hurry; even as an adult reader who could see the writing on the wall, I was kept guessing about whether or not they would still be together by the novel’s end. Their happy ending seems not only hard won but precarious, and therefore all the more precious.

    The language Heidicker employs here is also incredibly lush and beautiful! Even though the entire setting basically amounts to “a forest,” he creates a variety of diverse landscapes, each bursting with finely detailed sensory descriptions. Zombies notwithstanding, it made me itch to be walking through the spooky Antler Wood myself!

  5. Molly Sloan says:

    I agree that the language in this book is rich and beautiful I read this story aloud to my family on a long car ride over winter break and we were all enthralled. The stage being set in the opening chapter on those black pages, “a cloud slid off the moon and shadows reared up around the cavern.” (p. 5) We loved the cliffhanger endings that brought us back to the mysterious storyteller. The big reveal of the storyteller(s)’ identity in the end was pitch perfect. The language was delicious and kept us turning the pages. We also really loved the elevated, suspenseful language juxtaposed with the “shrew barf” and other modern kid language. That contrast was humorous and spot on for kids. I was all in on this book–I loved the language, the distinct and compelling characters, the unusual genre for kids. The fully realized “Antler Wood” the foxes inhabited was a distinguished setting.

    Then it all fell apart for me. The part when Beatrix Potter came into the story and became the villain absolutely dissolved the magic of the story. Not only did the poetically-realized world of the forest become lackluster and pedestrian when the foxes entered the human world, I was appalled by the appropriation of a real, iconic pioneer of children’s literature being transformed into a heartless, animal killer. I have had occasion to do some fairly thorough research into the life and work of Beatrix Potter. This portion of Scary Stories for Young Foxes demonstrates an atrocious lack of consideration for the historical person of Potter. First of all, A Fierce Bad Rabbit was written 13 years before The Tale of Mr. Tod (in the book the rabbit Potter kills is presented as the character of the Fierce Bad Rabbit while the stuffed Mr. Tod looks on from above). Heidicker presents Potter as pining away for her lost love, Norman, though by the time Mr. Tod is written she has married Mr. Heelis and is fully thriving in her life as a sheep farmer–not sequestered away in some thatched cottage in the woods catching wild creatures, torturing them, murdering them and then eating them.

    Setting this tale in the concrete world of a real, historical person also presents problems for the setting of the entire tale. If the story were set in a fictional forest of non-specific reality, it could have been anywhere foxes might live. But by placing the setting specifically in the Lake District of northern England it becomes trapped into that specific place. This became problematic for me when we encountered the Golgathursh. The animal was apparently supposed to read as alligators by human understanding–is that the way others read the Golgathursh? “Scaly limbs” “giant lizards” large as logs? No such animal inhabits the Lake District and so the once distinguished setting of the Antler Wood dissolved into a cobbled-together mishmash. My question is why Heidicker felt compelled to use a real person (a person who helped create the genre of children’s literature, no less, and who is likely a favorite of at least a few of his readers) as the villain in his story? A non-specific human villain would have been just as effective in giving Mia the terrifying experiences she has at the hands of Potter. Why so sloppily tie the whole tale to an actual author/illustrator?

    • Rachel Wadham says:

      I’m in full agreement Molly, I also think that this book misrepresents Potter in the extreme and that does nothing for the story or for the author herself. I can’t really understand why this choice was made, does anyone have any insight into that from the author or other experience?

    • Courtney Hague says:

      So, I didn’t look into the veracity of Potter’s representation in this book. I do think that the choice does weaken the novel in some ways. I think that your interpretation that she was depicted as a “heartless animal killer” actually speaks to the strength of the novel, because I don’t think that she acted very outside of the norm for someone who hunts and especially not for a 19th century naturalist. Audubon himself killed birds that he then painted. I wouldn’t be all the surprised to hear that Potter had observed and then killed animals that she painted. (Here’s actually an article about how Potter was accused of having chloroformed Peter Rabbit himself – https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/travel/1997/08/31/bunny-boiler-was-the-beloved-creator-of-peter-rabbit-a-bunny-cooking-vivisectionist/a8c367d6-5903-4d04-8123-d818578743b8/)

      But all that aside, perhaps the book is meant to read more as a cabinet of horrors for young foxes? Or maybe the author just didn’t think that far ahead and made a fantastical almost real place that definitely weakens the novel a bit?

      • I agree that the possible misrepresentation of Beatrix Potter is a weak point and that the Heidicker could have accomplished the same thing, narratively, by simply having “an author” as the character.

        But on the other hand, I appreciate Courtney’s insight that the actual behaviors described in the book aren’t that far off from the attitude of naturalists at the time. Most of the horror of that portion of the story comes from the fox’s point of view, but killing and eating a bunny is a pretty normal turn of events from the human perspective.

        Still trying to weight whether that’s enough of a concern to knock this one out of contention for me, because the language and setup is so fantastic.

  6. samuel leopold says:

    Thank you Courtney for an excellent introduction.

    There are so many things I like about this book—-the wonderful language, the yesterday and today stories mentioned in Rachel’s comments, the suspense created at each turn by the author, and the depth of character development .
    This is a fun and scary book that the kids I know all love.

    But….I must agree with the concerns so nicely detailed above by Molly. I also believe that it would have been better to have a “non-specific human villain.” It’s as if the author tried too hard to make the direct connection to Beatrix Potter and, in my opinion , it backfires a bit.

    A very good book, but not distinguished enough for a medal.

  7. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    The thing I liked best about this book is that it is a combination of classic horror — zombies, soul-stealing, monsters, a rotting paw returning from the grave — but all of these were based on the world of the actually possible. The writing was cleverly developed and balanced to make this work effectively.

  8. For me the most impressive feat in the novel is how the author incorporates so many other stories and mythos. The book begins with the yellow which seems to be a tribute to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dracula saves Jonathan Harker from three sisters who have vampirism and later is found to also be a vampire. This reminds me of the first two of the scary stories in the book. The third story has some similarities to the story of the Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe. The Golgathursh from one of the stories reminds me of the Cthulhu. This is one of the stories that helped me realize what the author was doing. The other was the story of the paw. A paw that keeps coming back reminds me of another old horror story. There is also a ghost story to end them all. This author has not only made some great stories, he has used some old classic horror as part of his telling. Vampires and ghosts with some themes although not exact tellings of other stories did impress me.

  9. Alissa Tudor says:

    This one made me cry multiple times. It was absolutely beautiful. I loved how everything came together in the end. The story was carefully crafted to tie all of the characters and events into a single, wonderful novel. It had just the right amount of suspense and surprise to keep it from being too predictable and although I had my suspicions about the end and how the stories were connected, I still found it to be a satisfying conclusion.
    I picked up tiny bits of information about foxes throughout the reading. I enjoyed learning about kits, the coloring of foxes, their eyes, etc. It was also interesting trying to “guess” what the kits were describing. For example, the house was described as a hollow boulder with grass growing on it. The writing was full of rich descriptions and details that really made this book stand out from some of the other junior fiction novels I have read in the past year.
    The story of Beatrix Potter was an interesting addition. I am not sure if I enjoyed this connection to real life outside of the novel itself. Especially after I did a little research and couldn’t find a ton to support this portrayal. I found that she did keep animals and use them as real models for her illustrations, but the actual part of caging them and killing them after wasn’t really discussed in the articles I found (of course, this was a very quick search. Heidicker undoubtedly has researched this more and could very well be correct in all that he said. I am just not sure I found this aspect to be a “win” for the book. I think the novel would have been better served with an unfamiliar/unknown/imaginary human, even if that character had similar motives and actions. Maybe that’s just me and my unblemished idea of Potter and Peter Rabbit not wanting to face any negative realities that may be accurate.) I saw one of the above posters mentioned they found an article about Potter and the rabbit. Again, even if the story is somewhat accurate, I just wasn’t a big fan of including it in this book.

  10. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    We’re now closing comments on our HM discussions, as balloting by the HM Committee is underway. Look for new discussions in the January 23rd post as members re-discuss contending titles.