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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

A Heroine’s Journey Home: Squirrels, a fox, and a broken family enter the Newbery Medal conversation

Jenn Reese’s A GAME OF FOX & SQUIRRELS is riveting and distinct. The strengths of this story lie in the unique exploration of theme, characterization and writing style.

Abuse is a heavy subject that several authors have explored this year. Reese approaches the theme in a unique way. Instead of explicitly showing violent scenes, (the parents rarely appear except in brief flashbacks), a card game is used as a metaphor. In the game, squirrels gather nuts in order to survive the winter. They must be wary of the Fox. When the Fox is hunting, no one is safe. This method works well, for the story can be read on multiple levels: as a suspenseful hero quest (complete with riddles and a riveting climax), and a coming-of-age story. The game perfectly mirrors Sam’s own experience.

Characterization is also wonderfully conveyed. Sam’s heartbeat is described, comparing it to a rabbit. Thus we experience her fear even as she grapples with feelings of loyalty toward her parents. In one scene, Sam uses storage bins to create a castle fort in which she can safely sleep. From the beginning, we see that Sam is bookish, loves adventures and is ultimately courageous. Her sister, Caitlin, is engaging as well.

Old Caitlin was always trying to be the best at everything, always trying to protect Sam, always making everyone happy. But the real Caitlin didn’t always want to help with the dishes (175).

Caitlin’s sacrifice is beautiful as we understand that she allowed herself to be hurt so that she and Sam could escape. She is a true warrior.

The other characters are equally compelling.  Ashander, the fox, is frightening while simultaneously engaging. Reese deliberately focuses on the fox instead of Sam’s father, which is a clever decision.

In a flash, his humor and wit vanished. Rather, Sam wished they had vanished. The aspects she loved were probably all still there, still every bit a part of him. Knowing this—that he could be this fox and the other fox at the same time—only made him more terrifying (197).

The squirrels are equally vivid as they long to help Sam on her quest but are terrified of Ashander’s wrath. They are perfect symbols of Sam’s mother.

Aunt Vicky and Hannah are incredible characters as well, particularly Aunt Vicky.  Her vulnerability and love are wonderful. The supportive adults and Sam’s new friend, Lucas, provide well-needed stability.

A GAME OF FOX & SQUIRRELS is crammed with literary allusions, which is fitting as Sam loves books. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT is referenced frequently, perfect symbolism for Sam’s own journey toward home. Reese also uses personification throughout the novel.

The tree-guards along the side of the road laughed, their branchy shoulders rustling. Oh, they were arrogant, those trees. Thinking they were so high and mighty just because they were, well, literally high and mighty (2).

A GAME OF FOX & SQUIRRELS explores the journey of a heroine, one who must learn the true meaning of the word home. This novel is destined to become a classic.

Meredith Leigh Burton is a motivational speaker, teacher and Indie author of the anthology Blind Beauty and Other Tales of Redemption. She lives in Lynchburg, Tennessee and enjoys reading, spending time with her family and meeting new people.  She is a graduate of the Tennessee School for the Blind and Middle Tennessee State University.  Her favorite genres are mystery and fantasy, but she will devour any book she can get her hands on.

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


  1. Meredith, thank you for this thoughtful review; you convey a lot of enthusiasm for the book. I have a question which is a bit broader than just this novel. Both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus describe it as allegorical; you certainly make the argument that the characters are fully developed, and that the card game is a metaphor. There’s a big difference between metaphor and allegory. ANIMAL FARM notwithstanding, allegorical novels would not be likely prize-winners today. (Maybe you or others reading this blog can come up with some exceptions.) Could you elaborate on what makes FOX & SQUIRRELS a true novel, not just an allegory or an elaborate set of symbols of escape?

    • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

      I read this book a while ago and really want to re-read it. But one question I had after putting it down was: was that fox real, or what? And my first reaction was that it doesn’t matter because somehow it works both ways. The fox narrative could be a way for Sam (and the author) to face and deal with the trauma she’s been through. So in the real world of the book, there’s no fox.

      Or it could be a magical thing that’s really happening, where fox and squirrels do talk and wear clothes and are somehow an extension of the people in Sam’s life, taking her through the pattern that she’s lived through. As, we assume, they did with her aunt earlier. Or am I just mis-reading the whole thing? I’m curious to hear how others felt about the way the author walked that line between real and fantasy. And how you think kids will see it.

  2. Ms. Emily: Thank you so much for your question. I will try to answer as succinctly as possible. With this book, I tend to get pretty rambly, though, so please bear with me.

    I did notice that Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus both describe this novel as an allegory. While that point could be argued, (and, why allegories come with so much negative connotations, I’m not sure), I found the characters to be fleshed out and very believable. Caitlin, in particular, is a typical teenager, and this aspect emerges as she gradually relaxes and becomes less frightened of her new home. Sam’s inner thoughts and feelings are beautifully complex, and she is a character, not a mere symbol. Aunt Vicky is kind, but Reese does well at showing her vulnerability. A particular instance occurs after Caitlin has sspilled a beverage and Aunt Vicky and Hannah discuss their own feelings of displacement. Aunt Vicky expresses her fears of being an inadequate parent, and Hannah comforts her. Hanna provides a constant source of stability in Vicky’s life, just as Vicky provides a place of refuge for Sam and Caitlin. Armen, Vicky’s business partner, provides humor. Lucas provides Sam with friendship. But, none of them are simply cookie cutter people. Lucas makes mistakes when talking with Sam, which causes her to become angry. They later reconcile.
    As for Ashander, Maple, Birch and Cedar, they are complex as well. Ashander is charming but also dangerous. As a reader, I, like Sam, was amused by him and liked him, (at least at first). As Maple says when Sam laments the unfairness of Ashander’s ever-shifting personality, “We are not all one thing,” and Reese does well at exploring this truth. He enlists Sam’s help in finding the Golden Acorn, but he really wants it for himself in order to obtain power. Cedar and Maple are different in that Cedar is the most frightened of Ashander. Maple longs to help Sam and only deserts her when she is threatened with physical harm. Reese shows us Maple’s sorrow at her decision. Birch is the bravest of the squirrels, and this is fitting as she and Sam are a lot alike.

    I hope that this answer is of some help. I really don’t see why an “allegory” shouldn’t win a Newbery, but I do think the book is much more than a mere didactic primer on how to survive abuse. It is an adventure story that provides hope and fulfillment to the reader, and that fact is well worth celebrating.

    The only book I can think of that has wn a Newbery and might be labeled an allegory is The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo. However, I don’t necessarily see it as an allegory, either.

  3. Alexis Redhorse says:

    Thanks to Meredith for the blog! Emily’s question is provocative and I appreciate Steven’s input.

    The book is catalogued as fantasy fiction at my library. The copy from the publisher includes the following statements: “Then one day Ashander shows up in Sam’s room and offers her adventure and a promise…” and “As Sam is swept up in the dangerous quest, the line between magic and reality grows thin.” Reese “writes speculative fiction.” This is such a novel. I don’t take the animals as allegorical or metaphorical—they’re characters. (It’s not an exact comparison, but what do you make of Jumanji?)

    Much has been made of the game as a means of coping, or a psychological reflection of the girls’ abusive family life. I took it as face value. I think that makes the book more clever and complex. The subject of abusive fathers is all too real to me. A speculative approach doesn’t make it easier for me to deal with; it adds layers. Though the book doesn’t meander. It’s a tightly constructed story that achieves everything it sets out to do. Reese is plain and generous in the back matter which made me feel less alone, even though I’m no longer the age the book is geared toward.

    RPGs are popular again, and I don’t think kids who play video games with recorded and otherworldly elements will worry about allegory or metaphor. That’s my take.

  4. I loved your question, Stephen, as I wondered about the fox, too. Was he real or not? I tend to agree with you that it doesn’t really matter, and I loved the ambiguity of this fact.
    However, there is evidence to support the fact that the squirrels and fox are real; somehow existing in a parallel world that has a direct correlation to the card game. For instance, Ashander only appears after the game is presented to Sam. I wondered: did Vicky give Sam the game because she somehow knew that Sam would have to face Ashander just as she herself had had to face him? Perhaps this was her way of helping Sam and herself to combat the evil surround them. This evil exists both in their world and the world of the game, but they have somehow merged. There is much evidence of Ashander’s hatred for Vicky as all of his “tests” seek to hurt her. In particular, he mentions that Pirate Princess, (Vicky’s charished stuffed rabbit), is a long-time foe, one whom he hasn’t seen in some time. It almost seems as if a curse of some kind is linked to the game. The final chapter finally shows it has been lifted. The Fox cards are removed only after Ashander has been banished through Sam’s and Vicky’s fighting together. So, while all of these adventures could be argued to only be taking place in Sam’s mind, I tend to think Ashander, Maple, Cedar and Birch are real. But, the beauty of this novel is that we do not know for sure, and that air of mystery makes it all the more fun.

    I read an interview with Jenn Reese that said that children are loving the book, and they are loving it because of the exciting story. Adults can argue about the abuse theme and whether the book is too dark, but the story is appealing to children, according to Reese.

  5. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Thanks for those examples, Meredith. Those specific details make the fox story so riveting, that it’s hard not to think that it’s really happening. I also liked that the fox really wasn’t there to help Sam, but to harm her. You really feel like he could do her physical harm, and that makes the building of suspense so strong.

  6. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    It’s also interesting to compare other books where real and fantasy (or allegory?) are combined. WHEN YOU TRAP A TIGER is the closest comparison. But I also think of the conversations between Judith Resnik and Bird in WE DREAM OF SPACE. Those aren’t really happening. And the advice Judith gives her doesn’t really seem to come from Bird’s mind, because it’s wiser and more mature. Judith is kind of like the adult that Bird needs to have in her life, but doesn’t. Yet it fits perfectly within the novel’s structure.

  7. Thank you, Meredith! I had to request my library order this one, but it is coming, so I will get to it as soon as possible. I find the assumption that an allegory would not be award-worthy an unexpected take. Why wouldn’t an allegorical tale be considered on equal standing with any other title?

  8. Hello, Ms. Sara Beth. Thank you for your question. (And, I’m glad your library has ordered the book. I hope that you like it. It’s an outstanding audiobook, too).

    I think, perhaps, that the term allegory has, over recent years, been associated with “preachiness” or “the dumbing down” of a topic. This is because an allegory can either be executed very well or very poorly. If A Game of Fox & Squirrels is indeed meant to be an allegory, it is an exceptional one. While I have always loved allegories myself and personally see nothing wrong with them at all, I think the marketing of books suffer when they are given that term. I speak from personal experience as my own book could be considered an allegory, and I know allegories do not sell well.

    That being said, I don’t think calling a book an allegory should automatically exclude it from Newbery consideration. If a story is presented with a consistent writing style, good exploration of theme and an engaging plot, it should not be excluded. I remember how much I loved Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth as a child. That book is definitely an allegory, but it is also a fun and enlightening read. So, the genre in which a book is placed should not exclude its consideration. And, I think Tollbooth should have won something!

    I do not feel that AGOFAS is simply an allegorical tale, however. I explain my reasons in an earlier comment. The only other thing I’ll add about that is that even Sam’s parents are shown in two distinct ways. Sam’s memories of them are deliberately fixated on only the good things. It is only when Ashander’s demands and erratic behavior force her into remembering unpleasant things that she begins to realize that going home may not be what she and Caitlin truly need. This example shows that the book delves into Sam’s mind with startling accuracy. This is not merely surface material. AGAFAS is psychologically profound.

  9. Oh my, Stephen, yes! I was terrified for Sam. Usually in stories, even if a villainous character is frightening, there is a sense of apartness, if that makes sense. We as readers know where we are, so we feel a bit separate from the events. A skilled writer pulls us in and doesn’t let go. Reese accomplished this for me with stunning effect. My heart was pounding during the climax, and I felt as if I’d been punched when the squirrels abandoned Sam. I haven’t been pulled in by a book like that in a long time.

    Yes, this year has lots of examples of stories that blend fantasy and reality very adeptly. I also think that Everything Sad is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri, does well at incorporating legends and myths into the narrative in an effective manner.

    I loved that aspect of We Dream of Space, too. It blended seamlessly with the story and felt very real.

  10. Alexis Redhorse says:

    Meredith, I answered quickly on my break before I read your response to Emily. Your initial blog and all the responses are terrific and make an excellent argument for this book as a serious contender for the Newbery Medal!

    I love the way the guest bloggers love these books!

    I do think it’s important that the author’s intentions are honored. Jenn Reese says she writes speculative fiction, which is often misunderstood and very unusual in MG fiction. It adds to the uniqueness and fascination of this tale. It’s a great opportunity to introduce the genre to kids. I like the references to The Hobbit too. Tolkien is high fantasy. Despereaux is a straight up fairy tale. Aslan is a Jesus allegory lion. I see the dragonflies in Callender’s book (which, I believe, were also discussed as metaphor) as elements of magical realism.

    I think genre fiction is not on equal standing with contemporary realism.

    Stephen, I’m glad you brought up When You Trap a Tiger and When You Dream of Space—both rightly catalogued as fiction by my library. I like all you say. I also like that Meredith points out that kids love the book! This: “Adults can argue about the abuse theme and whether the book is too dark” hasn’t been discussed much. I hate to pull in two titles only just because they contain abuse, but the brilliant mechanics (whatever you want to name it) of this book make it resonate more deeply with me than Chirp or Fighting Words. We’ll see!

  11. You make very good points, Ms. Alexis. Yes, both Chirp and Fighting Words were excellent books, (and Fighting Words is one of the other books I nominated for Newbery consideration). However, A Game of Fox & Squirrels resonated with me more than the “realistic explorations that both Messner and Bradley employed. This might be due to the fact that I love fantasy and speculative fiction, but I also think that exploring the abuse theme in a fantasy setting allows the reader to approach the story and feel a bit safer in doing so. The premise wouldn’t seem like it could work, but it actually does to amazing effect.
    Chirp and Fighting Words are straight-up realism whereas AGOFAS is a fun adventure that, despite the dark themes, allows the reader to become immersed and to find an avenue of escapism and encouragement. Moreover, Sam’s feelings are explored so honestly, and she truly comes alive for the reader. Kids will relate to her on so many levels. You can feel her fear, which is palpable, and you can cheer for her newfound courage. Reese does a masterful job of keeping the reader on tenterhooks throughout the book. In one scene, Caitlin spills a drink, and both she and Sam wait for the explosion they are certain will come from Hannah and Vicky:
    Sam couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. Caitlin had accidentally lobbed a grenade into their meal, and now they were holding their breath, waiting to see if it would explode (103). (Braille edition page number).

    Boy, can I relate to this feeling, and this book evoked some painful memories. It also provided good ones, though, and the mixture of darkeness and light, despair and hope is beautiful. I wanted to visit Oregon and meet those chickens. I wanted to have a delicious meal of eggs with the newfound family.
    Thank you for your excellent thoughts.

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