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Review of the Day: A Game of Fox and Squirrels by Jenn Reese

A Game of Fox and Squirrels
By Jenn Reese
Illustrated by Jessica Roux
Henry Holt and Co (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 9781250243010
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

We’re all having a rough year. And by “we” I pretty much mean “the entire world” is having a rough year. Things are not good. To escape, many of us typically turn to books. Kids are the same way. Now as an adult, I’m a bit of a wimp. I like blithe, happy novels. Stories in which peril is present but toothless. Maybe that’s why I gravitate towards children’s books more than adult ones. Under normal circumstances they offer a bit of respite from the darker material out there. But as this is 2020 and the world is full of complexity and problems, it should be of little surprise that the children’s books I encounter reflect those same complications. I’ve always said that books for youth serve as a mirror for the great grand conversations going on in the world. And if there is one particular trend I’ve noticed in my middle grade novels, it is without a doubt physical abuse, usually by family members. From Fighting Words to Chirp to Prairie Lotus (to a lesser extent), it’s handled in a variety of different ways. Some books are almost explicit while others merely allude to past incidents. It’s almost unfair to mention A Game of Fox and Squirrels in the same breath as these other books, though. While those double down on getting the “real” part of “realistic fiction” just right, author Jenn Reese goes a different route. Hers is a psychological novel that flirts with magical realism. There are foxes in waistcoats and squirrels that betray or befriend depending on the circumstances. What happens, though, is that after you finish reading this novel, somehow it has ended up feeling even more real than those straight up realistic books. With Jenn Reese’s great narrative risks come even greater rewards.

It’s not permanent. That’s what 11-year-old Samantha keeps telling herself. The fact that she and her older sister have been sent away from their parents in L.A. to go live with some aunt in Oregon? Temporary. Resistant to change, Sam is unprepared for her Aunt Vicky, and Vicky’s wife Hannah, to be so welcoming. Vicky even bestows upon Sam an old game called Fox & Squirrels. And it isn’t long after she sees it that Sam is visited by an actual waistcoated fox and his attendant squirrels for a dangerous game. If Sam succeeds in interpreting what the fox wants, she gets a single wish for anything she wants. And what Sam wants is for everything to go back to the way that it was. But as she plays the fox’s game, and gets to know her aunt better, Sam slowly begins to realize that sometimes what you want and what you need are very different. But that’s the thing about playing with a fox. Once the game starts, it doesn’t end until he gets what he wants.

My 9-year-old daughter still prefers that when I am reading a novel I should describe to her the plot of it as I go. In describing A Game of Fox and Squirrels though, she was baffled. I had explained that the main character’s father had done something terrible and that was why the girls had been taken away. At the same time, Samantha is single-mindedly focused on everything going back to the way it used to be, abuse and all. My daughter was, to put it mildly, flabbergasted. And her reaction, I am sure, can be mimicked in a lot of the kids reading this book. This is why it’s so clever that Reese doles out the information on why the girls have left their parents as carefully as she does. Aside from the obvious advantages of setting up the mystery of what happened back in L.A. for the sake of suspense, it allows the child reader to come to like Samantha before coming to the stunning realization that for her “safe” and “home” are not the same things. Samantha’s selective memory of past events is also woven into the narrative, which isn’t first person but stays firmly focused on her as a character. For Reese to successfully pull this novel off, she has to clear up the confusion of why Samantha would ever want to go back to her father by tying that relationship directly to one character: The fox.

Make no mistake, there is a reason you know the fox, meet the fox, and never ever meet or see Samantha’s father in this book. You know that old adage authors are told to adhere to, “Show don’t tell”? When a writer knows what they are doing, you’ll get to see those words put into practice. With infinite cleverness Reese doesn’t tell you much about Sam and Caitlin’s father, and she doesn’t even directly tell you much about the fox. Instead, peppered throughout the story, are the rules of playing the card game Fox & Squirrels. Part of the game is to win the fox’s favor by showing your loyalty. And the little sections that talk about the fox speak of it in this way:

“A happy Fox requires very little effort to please. Give the Fox a pair of matching cards, and he’ll stay happy. You can continue on with your day. Earning the favor of a charming Fox is trickier. Sometimes three cards of the same number will appease him, and sometimes he wants three cards with their numbers all in a row. It’s all about what the Fox wants in that particular moment, and no one knows what that is except the Fox! Try everything you can think of. Be as clever as you dare. Hope for the best.”

This distinction between the three ways the Fox can be (Happy, Charming, or Hunting) and the ways you can bend over backwards to appease him echo nicely in the storyline. Throughout the book you watch the squirrels act out this ballet, blaming one another if one upsets the fox somehow, or blaming themselves. You read this book and understand what it means to live on tenterhooks around someone, never knowing if an off-chance sentence or sentiment will anger them. So Reese weaves her storyline in and out between these rules, the actual Fox, and memories of Samantha’s dad (who even then is never fleshed out in any real way). Kids who have never lived with someone with anger issues will suddenly have a window into what living that life entails. Kids that know precisely what Reese is talking about may find both a mirror and a door.

Truly great books for kids have to jump through a number of hoops. Humor is not required but is greatly appreciated (and this book is sure to include some of that). Beautiful descriptive writing is always a delight (“Shadows reached up from the ground, looping dark tendrils around roots and pulling flowers into darkness”). The motivations of the characters should be clear cut and believable. And the characters themselves? Well, here’s a thought. Let’s look at Samantha’s older sister Caitlin. It wasn’t until the end of the book that an idea dawned upon me. The true hero of this story isn’t necessarily Samantha. She’s our protagonist and she’s working through something difficult, but when you get near the end of the book you come to realize that the real hero all along has been her older sister Caitlin. The sister who has literally sacrificed herself for the good of her sister. She, like all the other characters in this book, is seen relatively briefly but is fleshed out lovingly as the story progresses. So complex character development? Check and check and check.

When I was a kid, I had a thing for foxes. I wonder what I would have made of the current foxy crop of books. Between this and Scary Stories for Young Foxes, foxes are getting into some seriously dark territory these days. Even so, I found Jenn Reese’s book a sheer pleasure to read. It’s a mystery. It’s a game. It’s filled with puzzles and riddles and clues. It’s funny, and it’s deadly serious. Parts are evocative and parts are heartfelt and parts are completely unforgettable. Having a rough day/week/month/year? Cuddle up to this. Challenging enough to intrigue you. Enticing enough to keep you.

On shelves now.

Source: Ebook read via Overdrive.

Very Random Note That Doesn’t Really Have Much of Anything to do With This Book: Is it just me or does no one else ever see this title and immediately pronounce it like they were Boris & Natasha?

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.