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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

Horror. Kids eat that stuff up with a spoon. At some point in a human life, a little switch gets flipped in the brain and suddenly, instead of dreading that moment at night when you clutch your bed sheets and pull them over your head, you seek it out. And book publishers, realizing that kids love scary stories, have turned them into a neat and tidy little industry. How else to explain the popularity of series like Goosebumps or the never-unpopular Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark? Actually, Goosebumps isn’t quite the powerhouse these days that it once was. Its gradual release on the industry is now allowing new books to sneak through the cracks. Whether it’s Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener, Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces, Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies, or Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm series, there’s something for every kind of horror fan. With all that in mind, a book with a title like Scary Stories for Young Foxes (featuring some seriously cute kits on its cover) seems like weak tea in comparison. Foxes? How scary can that get? Answer: Hoo-boy. Hold onto your hats folks. Turns out, what terrifies a fox can terrify a child just as easily. For some readers the fact that everyone here sports red fur will make the horrors a little better. For others, much much worse.

Seven little foxes are on the hunt for frightening tales. Their mother can’t provide the shivers they need so it’s down to Bog Cavern they go. Down to the storyteller who warns them right from the start that what they are about to hear could scare them half to death. Then she starts and the tales suck you in. In one we meet Mia, a kit whose family falls prey to a dangerous “yellow disease”. Then we meet Uly, a kit with only three paws, and a family so deadly it’s a miracle he’s alive. Seemingly disconnected stories are woven together expertly as Mia and Uly’s tales intertwine, separate, and come together again. Beware, gentle reader. These tales are not for the faint of heart. And once you start, you cannot stop until you’ve reached the end.

One concern I had as I read this book was the danger that Heidicker would play his hand too soon. The first tale, “Miss Vix” kicks things off beautifully, but was it possible that the scariest stories would be front and center and then everything would calm down as the book went on? To a certain extent that does happen a little. After all, once you’ve met the alligator in Kathy Appelt’s The Underneath, what can a Golgathursh do for you? But then everything picks up again at a furious pace. You have something invisible that’s stealing your children before your very eyes. You have the horror of a zombie paw that can’t be escaped. You have a badger that says things like, “Its sweat will only serve as spice.” And then there’s the fact that Heidicker has the ability to render the banal horrible. Now The Wind in the Willows and Peter Rabbit will always send a small chill down my spine. So long, innocent childhood!

All of which is well and good but I would be amiss in not mentioning that Mr. Heidicker turns out to be a very good writer. There’s a restrained humor at work, like on the very first page where you have a patient fox mother asking her kits (in what I consider a moment of admirable restraint) to “please stop biting my face children.” There are beautiful descriptions, like the first sentence of the first chapter: “The sun was only just peeking over the peachleaf trees, but the heat was already crisping the leaves and steaming the creek and making the dying fields too bright to look at.” Or descriptions that are short and sweet and to the point: “Her mom’s voice caught, like it had hooked on a thorn.” The older I get, the more I admire children’s novelists that take time to stop and invoke, even when they’re in the thick of their plotting.

I think a lot about what our fiction teaches kids today. To do that, I like to see how books connect to one another. Now the most obvious book to pair this one with is the aforementioned A Tale Dark and Grimm by Gidwitz. The similarities are undeniable. After all, both start out with fairytale like stories that can be seriously frightening and that seem disparate but that come together as the novel progresses. A series that may be less obvious to hand alongside Heidicker’s is Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Look at all three writings and a common theme emerges. Middle grade fiction has always found parents and guardians to be unnecessary to adventuring, so they usually make the heroes orphans. But what these three creations do that is more insidious is tell us in no uncertain terms that if you are a child you cannot count on the adults in your life to protect you. If you are going to survive, don’t expect mommy and daddy to hold your hand. You need to be smart, quick, slick, and to pay attention. You need to use other people’s prejudices against them. Most of all, you need to keep going, even when things get abominably difficult. You’re on your own kid. It’s a good thing. Embrace it.

You can tell a lot about a book by its villains. Are they three-dimensional or just soulless killing machines? In a book of this sort, you’ve a wide array from which to choose. Do you consider the “yellow disease” to be a villain? Or the Golgathursh? There are a couple faceless baddies like that, but for the most part the bad guys that we get to know show all kinds of different sides to us. Take, for example, the only human in this book. Pretty much the moment Heidicker turned Beatrix Potter into the stuff of nightmares, I officially fell in love with this book. Her motives are pretty pure and I’m sure there will be plenty of folks who take issue with the characterization, but as far as I’m concerned this marvelous fictionalized Potter is every inch the villain we need. She is not without her reasons for why she does things, but at the same time she’s all the more terrifying for those moments when she gains our sympathy. Worse than Potter, however, is Uly’s father, Mr. Scratch a.k.a. Mr. Toxic Masculinity. The beauty of his rendering is that he’s just as physically threatening as he is emotionally dangerous. We do get a chapter where we see into his brain, and it offers us an understanding (sans sympathy) for this big bad. For me, he’s best when he’s insidious. Mr. Scratch’s grooming of Mia, for example, holds an element to it that adults will cringe from for reasons different than kids. Not many cult leaders in kidlit. Fewer still smelling of lavender.

At the end of this book, there is a small explanation about why we tell scary stories. In the case of the foxes, it’s to protect the young ones from a world they have yet to fully inhabit. Is that what we do with our own kids and books like this one? The horrors found here don’t have direct correlations to human life all the time, but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying. Why do kids love horror so much? Why do we provide them with new scares every year? Is it to keep them safe, as the storyteller in this book implies? Maybe in a way, but perhaps it has more to do with the way in which a good story embeds itself into your cranium. Everything we read as children sticks somewhere, whether we remember the exact words or not. When kids read horror novels, they learn that villains can be escaped, beaten, outwitted, outrun. The ending of this book is happy, but in such a way that you understand that that happiness might be fleeting. No, little children. You cannot depend on adults to protect you. What you can count on is stories like this one, to give you the tools you need when the world lets you down. Terrifying and wonderful. A nightmare book you’ll want to return to repeatedly.

On shelves July 30th.

Source: Galley sent from author for review.

Misc: In case you missed it, Heidicker’s rapid-fire look at foxes in kids’ books is more than worth the price of admission.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.