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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS by Jenn Reese

Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Sara Beth West

One could reasonably make the argument that Jenn Reese’s A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS deserves Newbery consideration for “delineation of a setting” because the descriptions of the Oregon woods are lush and distinctive. Or perhaps for “presentation” because the use of the board game as a framing device is unique and wonderful. I think, however, the most useful starting spot for this discussion comes in the area of “appropriateness of style” which is intertwined with “interpretation of the theme or concept.” Considering we have just discussed another title (FIGHTING WORDS) with abuse at its center, it might be most fruitful to point up the ways in which this book sets itself apart.

First, there is the issue of appropriateness. Because it perfectly marries the realistic with the magical, A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS provides a layer of protection against the harshest truths while never skirting the issue. Sam and Caitlin’s fear and the harm done to them (both mentally and physically) is never in doubt, and readers are clearly told that their father is the responsible party. By introducing Ashander, however, readers are able to look at that abuse sidelong, and protect themselves as needed. This is important for those readers who will see themselves in Sam and Caitlin as well as those readers who have not yet had to face the reality of parental abuse, and for me, that is a critical understanding of writing for young readers.

Then there is interpretation of theme which Reese accomplishes through consistently fine writing. The book’s pacing, plotting, and structure are perfect, the whole thing a tightly-bound narrative that never loses its way. And while some have argued the relative value of fantasy (or allegory) versus realistic fiction, the border between the two is where this book really shines. When Sam starts to understand that Ashander is likely to harm them, she tells Maple the squirrel:

“I wish Ashander stayed charming.”

Maple’s determined face grew sad. She touched Sam’s leg with her paw. “Nobody is only one thing.”

“Then I wish he weren’t charming at all. If he hadn’t been so nice at the beginning, if I didn’t like him, then it wouldn’t matter so much that, that . . .”

“That he’s hunting us,” Maple said.

“Yeah.”

“Let’s run, child,” the squirrel said, and they did. (185)

This simple dialogue reveals so many truths, about the quest Sam is on and the responsibility she feels, the threat Ashander poses, and the very real complexities that accompany family abuse. It is rarely just one thing. It is a tangle of love and fear, and Reese’s ability to make this utterly real to her readers is what marks this book as truly distinguished.

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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. Rox Anne Close says:

    I agree with Sara Beth that “A Game of Fox and Squirrels” deserves Newbery consideration for both ‘delineation of a setting” and for “presentation”. The Oregon forest was both seductively inviting and dangerously scary, yet showed that there is light at the end of the tunnel and a path out of the forest. The use of a magical card game to frame the plot was clever and creative, especially peppering throughout the story the rules of the game that helped Samantha process her emotions and helped her realize that she has the power to change the rules.

    This book has a rich and layered plot mixing realistic fiction with a little fantasy. The author does a nice job having the relationship of Samantha and Ashander, mirror that of her abusive father, and showing the seductiveness of abuse with a fox that sometimes is happy, sometimes charming, but watch out for the times he is hunting. Don’t talk, don’t tell, show loyalty! There are many levels to this story, tying in the “Good vs. Evil” of Middle-earth, Narnia and Oz. Heroes always went home from The Hobbit, the sacrifice of Aslan in Narnia, and the meaning of home in The Wizard of Oz.

    The characters are rich and complex. Samatha’s single minded quest to go back to the way things were made me realize that she does not equate “home” with “safe.” I wanted her desperately to find the true meaning of “home.” I liked the sensitive way the author wrote the character of Aunt Vicky, suddenly taking her brother’s children and consequently reliving some of her own previous abuse, while showing unconditional love. The author also showed a lovely portrayal of a same sex marriage. Although this story was mostly about Samantha (Sam), the protagonist, was Caitlin the actual real hero? She always protected Sam. She gave Sam her sweatshirt, which became a coat of armor when Sam confronted Ashander in the forest at the end of the story.

    As far as the issue of appropriateness, I looked at this book as more of a psychological “thriller” than a fantasy. It allowed the reader to explore and come to terms with the heartbreaking emotional realities of abuse, but it was quite an intense read for me. I felt like it needed more lighter moment to break up the heavy burden of the topic of abuse. I was living on tender hooks throughout the book. Sam’s ‘castle” in her room wasn’t even safe as Ashander did not have boundaries. On the other hand, the author showed the perpetual alertness and fear that is needed if you live with an abuser. I just needed some lighter moments interspersed, like “Food City”, singing Skinnamarinkydinkydink and the humor of using the word “snow” in the book Fighting Words, to calm my “rabbit heart”. I was exhausted after reading this book, but maybe that was the reality that the author wanted to convey.
    .

  2. Meredith Burton says:

    A Game of Fox & Squirrels is absolutely incredible, tackling such a harrowing subject as child abuse in such an accessible way. Ms. Sara Beth’s introduction was phenomenal in its discussion of the presentation of theme. I especially loved how Reese approached the theme using the board game. Unlike Fighting Words, which, being realistic, has to be explicit and almost too hands-on in its approach to the abuse theme, A Game of Fox & Squirrels allows the reader to view Reese’s story from multiple angles. You can definitely explore the abuse issue, but you can also view the story as a harrowing and adventurous quest. I also loved the contrast of the forest and Aunt Vicky and Hannah’s cottage, which, despite the cramped quarters, was a sanctuary for Sam and Caitlin.
    Condiments sat in the center of the table like a tiny cityscape: ketchup and sriracha soaring above the rest, two thin spires of hot sauce, spice jars plump and low and labeled GARLEC and OREGANO and SHALLOTS. What was a shallot? It sounded dangerous.
    The four of them were crammed around one end of the long table because computers occupied the other half, big black monitors arranged like an altar, worshipped by keboards and mice and surrounded by coilds of unkempt black cords. (32). (Braille edition).

    Think about this vivid description. Sam longs to return to Los Angeles, so she sees the condiments resemble a cityscape, reminding her of her home. This is an example of a gifted author, one who uses her descriptive ability to both explore the cramped living quarters but to also still remind readers of Sam’s desires.

    I appreciated that Reese showed Sam wanting to return home. Those who have never experienced abuse might be confused by Sam’s desire. Why return to such a dangerous environment? But, it is all that Sam has known. Reese deliberately has Sam focus on the good aspects of her father, which makes the story even more hard-hitting when Sam must confront the truth. This book explores PTSD more effectively than Fighting Words because the story, while it is told in third person point of view, squarely focuses on Sam’s perspective.

    There are many light moments in this book: Aunt Vicky and Hannah’s humor, the baking of Sam’s birthday cake, the instance when Sam and Birch dance inm the forest, Lucas and Sam’s meeting, ETC. Reese does well at keeping the reader in suspense, but there are plenty of instances that make the story fun.

    Character is where this book shines for me as well. Aunt Vicky, who is a large woman, has a mouse-like voice. I love how her and Hannah’s relationship is so authentic. Hannah is always there to lend support. Vicky, though vulnerable, is kind and tries to show her nieces unconditional love, love which she did not have growing up, either. Armen and Lucas provied support and comic relief. Ashander is such a frightening but fascinating character as are the squirrels.

    A Game of Fox & Squirrels shone in every way, and I think it is well-deserving of the Newbery. Reese writes with an appropriate style for children while providing appealing descriptions that adults will enjoy, too. This is an unforgettable novel that deserves a much wider readership.

    • Carrie Bruner says:

      I agree with you that this book deserves a much wider readership. This was one of two titles on our list that I had not previously read. I live in a fairly large metropolitan area and was very surprised that none of the public libraries in my area had a copy at all, either in the city or surrounding counties. I had not heard of it previously, and even though my district remains virtual, I searched our district shelves to see if any of the other schools had a copy either. None did. I’m curious why there has been such an oversight in my area for this title.

      I

      • Rachel Jamieson says:

        I think it had to do with book reviews, most likely. While it was reviewed in several journals, SLJ and Kirkus did not give it a starred review. It did receive a star from PW, and it was an NPR best book of 2020. I think books like this are less likely to get our attention if they don’t receive starred reviews from SLJ. It will be a great one to book talk to students and get the word out there about it. I felt more comfortable recommending this book to children then any of the other books we discussed this week. Using the fox imagery was a great way for children to understand the difficulty of living with an abusive caregiver.

  3. Meredith Burton says:

    A Game of Fox & Squirrels did receive a starred review from both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. Frankly, I am astounded it did not receive anymore starred reviews than that, but I just loved it so much, and it’s hard for me to be subjective about this one. I apologize.

    I am frustrated that the readership is not wider for this book because the writing is stellar, the plot is tightly woven and the characters are complex and beautifully presented. As Ms. Rachel says, of all the books we have discussed so far, I think this one would appeal to children the most because of the suspense and rich setting. I am apprehensive that the committee will not be introduced to it or that it will be missed because of the plethra of exceptional titles this year. I hope this is not the case. If A Game of Fox & Squirrels receives the Newbery or an honor, perhaps more people will find it. It’s a gem of a story that presents true darkness but also reveals dazzling light; the light of hope.

  4. Yes, to all of this!

    The fact that Reese is a lesser-known author AND that her other work is in “genre” fiction likely (though unfairly) poses an obstacle for her. Even here, in our opening discussion, we had some disagreement over whether this book should be classed as allegory (which a few of the outlets have done?) and whether allegory should or should not be considered for the Newbery. The whole idea baffled me then and baffles me still. Why would this book be called an allegory? And even if it were, why would that exclude it from consideration?

    Perhaps more baffling still are the titles that I have read this year (that I will not name) that are on the shelf in every library and will likely be on the Newbery “table” that do not, in my opinion, measure up to this one. It is a confusing and sometimes heart-breaking game, but the best we can do is read widely and then work to get those books in the hands of young readers. (PS: I requested my library order this one, and they did!)

    Ok. Rant over. This book is stellar. 🙂

    • Amanda Bishop says:

      I agree Sara Beth! This book is absolutely stellar. This one was not on my radar until I saw it popping up on Heavy Medal and then I saw it on NPR’s Best of list. I am so glad that this book was chosen for our mock Newbery because it so clearly captures the mind of Sam and the conflicting emotions that she felt. Missing her parents while also realizing that what happened to her and her sister was terrible.

      There were multiple books this year that deal with the childhood trauma, but I think this one will really resonate with young readers. Reese is such a captivating writer and really brings the story to life.

  5. Courtney Hague says:

    Ok, I’m going to be the dissenting voice here. I honestly feel like I read a completely different book from everyone else because I just don’t see it.

    I did appreciate the use of the game to frame the story and it was clever the way she showed the reader her father’s abuse sidelong through Ashander. But, I just felt like it was not fleshed out enough. This book felt like it had too much going on and not enough time was devoted to any one thing.

    I liked the idea of the characters but never felt like I really got to know any of them. I liked the idea of all the woodland creatures but once again I felt like they weren’t completely fleshed out. I felt myself wishing this was just one thing or another and that it wasn’t trying to do so much. I either wanted it to be a realistic family story about abuse or to be an fantasy adventure story. It just didn’t work for me.

    I know everyone else loved this, so I feel terrible not liking it very much.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Courtney, I liked the book but I agree that things could have been more fleshed out. I don’t have the book in hand, but I particularly remember there being hints of Aunt Vicky’s own demons, which had made her hesitant to take on the children. I don’t think that was ever fleshed out and so ended up being confusing to me. I wondered but was never sure whether Vicky feared that some of her brother’s tendencies were also in her, making her unfit to care for children, or whether there were childhood incidents with her brother that were so traumatic that she couldn’t bear to possibly have them reopened? Did I miss something? Can someone explain what she was talking about?

      In a comment to FIGHTING WORDS, I mentioned that A GAME OF FOX AND SQUIRRELS seems to head towards an explicit revelation of abuse, but doesn’t really get there, and that also gave me a feeling of literary incompleteness. I also agree that the book’s allegorical effectiveness might have been improved if the squirrels were more cleanly established (it might have been nice if a reader could connect individual squirrels to, say, the mom, Caitlin, etc.) I disagree that the book would have been better as an either/or though. I almost think we wouldn’t be discussing this book were it not for its genre mixing. Without the fantasy adventure, I think it becomes much simpler to just take FIGHTING WORDS over this. Without the abuse, this becomes a fairly straight genre book (c.f. THE KINGDOM OF BACK).

      • Good points, Leonard. With VIcky’s fears and uncertainty, I took it to mean both she and her brother had been abused by their parent, and yes, I think she was concerned about such a trait surfacing in her as it had in Sam and Caitlyn’s dad. Anyone else?

      • Courtney Hague says:

        I agree that I think it is implied that Vicky and her brother had both been abused and she feared those traits would come out in her. I honestly thought that part was well done.

        And I know that the mixing of genres is really what elevates this book. I guess what I was trying to convey is that I wish more time had been devoted to each part (the fantasy and the family story). It just felt very rushed.

      • Amanda Bishop says:

        I think Reese did a great job at implying that Vicky had been abused as a child and that is why she was perfect for guiding and helping Sam get through what happened to her. I think young readers will appreciate the length of this book and don’t necessarily need the lengthy backstory of what happened to Vicki and her brother when they were growing up.

  6. Meredith Burton says:

    Aunt Vicky struggles with feelings of insecurity and struggles with anger issues. Unlike her brother, Grant, however, she sees a therapist and receives support from Hannah. She has been able to face the toxic environment from which she came unlike her brother. His wife is an enabler, her complacency allowing his destructive behavior to continue. Here is an example of Aunt Vicky’s attitude in Chapter Twelve. For context, she is angry with her business partner, and Sam and Caitlin are frightened she will take her anger out on them:

    Aunt Vicky stopped. Closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Sam watched the hard line of her shoulders round and soften, as if Aunt Vicky were remolding them out of clay. She opened her eyes again.
    “I’m sorry, Armen,” Aunt Vicky said. “I was upset, and I shouldn’t have snapped at you.” WShe looked at Caitlin and Sam. “I’m sorry, kids.”
    “It’s okay, no big deal,” Caoitlin said brightly, and went back to her sandwich.
    Sam sat there silently, waiting for the surprise. The twist. The sharp knuckle of a fist that would jab an arm or a leg. Aunt Vicky had been so angry, Sam was sure of it. But now, she almost seemed back to normal. (151, Braille edition).

    The correlation between the fantasy and reality is essential to leaven teh realistic aspects of this story. Sam, who escapes into her books, is similar to Aunt Vicky, although Aunt Vicky’s escape was through fantasy games and her collection of stuffed animals. The rabbit, Pirate Princess, was an ally to the Queen of the Squirrels and helped Aunt Vicky. The foe to them all was Ashander, the counterpart to Vicky’s own real-life experience. It is clear that Ashander sees Pirate Princess as an enemy:
    Ashander took the rabbit’s chin in his red paw. There was a gleam in his eye that Sam hadn’t seen before.
    “A rabbit,” he said, and broke into a grin. “But no ordinary rabbit. A creature greatly beloved. This is a foe I know well, though I have not seen her for many years.” He tugged at the rabbit, but Sam wasn’t quite ready to let go. (163, Braille edition).

    Ashander’s destruction of the rabbit is gut-wrenching and one of the most heartbreaking scenes I have read in a children’s book this year. The whole idea is that Sam and Vicky are much alike. Through support she has received, Vicky is finding her voice. Sam receives support through the actions of her warrior sister. The animals that helped Aunt Vicky while she was growing up help Sam, particularly the ring that was intended as a crown for the Queen of the Squirrels. Ashander longs to gain absolute power and rule over the forest, and he wants to use Sam to attain this goal. He tried using Aunt Vicky but she thwarted him. The intergenerational connection is very important to this story. This is why Aunt Vicky gives Sam the game, to help her find her voice as Aunt Vicky found her own. She knows it is inevitable Sam will meet Ashander and have to face him, so she is trying to help in her own way. Sam also receives support from Lucas through the gift of his compass. So, her newfound family in Oregon is helping her to find her voice the only ways they can.
    Of course, if you don’t want to try to piece together this puzzle, that is fine. That’s why this book works on so many levels. You can read the story as a family saga, a story of two girls finding a home. Or, you can enjoy the fantasy elements and appreciate how everything connects together. But, whichever way you read this, there is much to ponder and appreciate.

    I hope this explanation helps. I am fighting for this one to at least make it to the finalist round.

  7. Aud Hogan says:

    I didn’t feel quite as emotionally connected to this book as I think some other readers are, because I agree with Leonard and Courtney that I didn’t get to know most of the characters very well. However, we are seeing a lot of things through Sam’s perspective, over the course of just a couple of days, and she’s not exactly keen to put down roots, is she? Since she’s not looking for new, human, emotional connections herself, perhaps it isn’t that odd that some readers aren’t forming those connections, either. That being said, the way the story is woven together is quite well done. I think the author could have made a couple of things about Aunt Vicky a bit clearer, though. Particularly about her motivations. Meredith’s summary is very good, and tallies with my own reading, but that reading was done in large part between the lines. I think a couple of more things could have been spelled out, maybe at the very end, at least.

    I like how Aunt Vicky is showing that, with work, people can break cycles, even when it’s hard and scary.

    I personally still felt that Fighting Words was the more compelling story. It was the one I couldn’t put down, and the one where I really cared hard about the entire cast of characters. But I appreciate that that’s subjective.

  8. Emily Mroczek says:

    Thanks to everyone for your great points.

    I agree that this book really shines because of presentation. The idea that the whole book is a giant metaphor for abuse and the parallels of fantasy (or psychological thriller) are innovative and very well done. This is an incredibly tough topic to write about, that a large amount of kids deal with and pairing it with fantasy could help reach a large amount of children that it might not normally reach.

    However I agree with others that the secondary characters are not very fleshed out- and yes this is Sam’s story, however they have a huge role in the book. Also the lack of secondary character development does detract from the plot. You are left confused about Ashander and the squirrels… wondering about Aunt Vicky’s past… curious about Sam and Caitlin’s relationship… This lack of characterization brings the Fox and Squirrel down in comparison to the other superb titles this year- most particularly Fighting Words, which addresses similar topics.

    • What I find so fascinating (and not problematic – rather, I appreciate it) is how different our reading experiences can be. I did not have these concerns or confusions. That doesn’t mean I read it “better” than someone else; it’s not a commentary on the quality of our reading. It is, instead, just a really interesting look at the way a single book can be received by varied readers in such remarkably different ways. Or even the same reader on a different day or in a different year. I’m reminded of a few titles that I simply COULD NOT read when I first picked them up and then years later fell utterly in love with. It points to the power of literature, I think, and I’m ever so grateful for these discussions!

      It makes my heart swell to picture all the readers out there, encountering books that will be just right for them in that moment!

  9. Kirsten Hansen says:

    I find the different interpretations of Aunt Vicky’s behavior interesting: my read of her behavior is that she is suddenly confronting/reliving her childhood abuse when her nieces come to live with her. It’s clear that she has worked on her own reactions to childhood abuse, but the fact that Sam and Caitlin don’t know her (or even about her) before being sent to live with her seems to indicate that she tried to leave her childhood behind (despite the stuffed animals from her childhood.) I’ve read accounts from parents who were surprised by their reactions when their children reached the age they were when they were abused, and I assumed that’s what’s happening here. Of course, it’s not either/or: one can be reliving trauma and afraid of inflicting it at the same time. And I think that ambiguity is fine: the reader doesn’t need to know exactly what Aunt Vicky is experiencing to know that she finds it challenging.

    I found some of the fuzziness of characterization realistic. Even though the book is not in first person we are seeing Sam’s perspective which is necessarily limited and the plot takes place over just a few days as compared to Fighting Words, which has more time to flesh out secondary characters. I thought the fact that Ashander and Vicky and Hannah and even Caitlin remain somewhat opaque mirrors Sam’s experience of being (from her perspective) dumped in a totally new place after living through trauma.

  10. Meredith Burton says:

    I am enjoying everyone’s differing perspectives, although I’m confused by the awssertion that character development is weak. I did not see this at all and found all the characters compelling and strong. Caitlin and Sam’s relationship is realistic. I have two nieces with similar age differences, and the older one treats the younger with indifference or dirision at times. This does not mean they don’t love each other and would fight to protect each other. Caitlin is the same way; seemingly abrasive but really loving and strong. As another commentor says, she might be the true hero of the story. And, like any typical teenager, she doesn’t always want to help with the dishes. She’s similar to Sukie’s character in Fighting Words, although Reese approaches this in a more subtle way.
    Hannah is supportive of Vicky even if she seems to be in the background. She’s a calming force and essential to the book.
    We forget that Sam’s father and mother might not have allowed Vicky to contact her nieces. And, it’s natural to want to get away from an abusive person. You have too, especially one as corrisive as Grant is. Reese is clever to use Ashander in this way. He is a very vivid character. You cannot forget him even though he’s the villain. Ashander allows the child reader to be distanced from Sam’s parents, (remember that we only hear about their good points for most of the book. This is a deliberate decision on Reese’s part to help us get into Sam’s mindset). Cedar, Maple and Birch are complex as well. Birch is heroic and lures Ashander away, giving Sam a chance to escape. She is later knighted by the Queen of the Squirrels. Cedar is the most cowardly, but he does try to help. Maple is steadfast to Sam until Ashander directly threatens her. They, like Sam, are trapped, and they each react in different ways. It is significant that the seemingly weakest and smallest squirrel, Birch, is the most heroic.
    These are truly engaging characters. Reese might be more subtle in her approach to this topic, but that does not mean that her book is inferior or lacking. The subtler approach is more palatable and, I think, accessible to children. Reese experienced abuse growing up and used fantasy and science fiction books to help her sort through her feelings. I applaud her for making the decision to confront difficulties in her own life and writing about them. Bradley has done this with Fighting Words as well.

    Thank you all for bearing with my ramblings and for your patience.

  11. Tamara DePasquale says:

    I find myself aligning more with Courtney, Leonard and Aud on this one. I do not feel invested in any character, including Samantha, and because of this struggled to buy into the fantasy. We do not know much about any character. In comparison, I quickly noted 18 facts about Della (Fighting Words) that we learned just within the first chapter. I felt distanced from Caitlin and Aunt Vicky; Armen and Lucas felt too quirky and contrived, and Hannah and the social workers were equally unremarkable. And will someone tell me who actually ripped up the letter to BriAnn and why? Sadly, I will not remember any of these characters. I literally just had to revisit the book to recall their names in order to write a response.

    The idea of a card game framing the story is very creative, and I was willing to continue reading for the plot potential. However, I wanted more and at times I was confused. Was the fantastic storyline established to help Sam and the reader better understand the physical abuse? To soften its harsh reality? Or, was Sam losing her grip on reality? The squirrels were interchangeable, and I found myself trying to make connections as to who they might represent, thus pulling me out of the story. As for Ashander, he’s a fox. We know not to trust him, and the setup for his likeness to the manipulative, abusive father felt too easy.

    Another thing I struggled with was the timeline. Are we to believe that both girls, especially Caitlin, are settling in with Aunt Vicky and Hannah all within two weeks? Is Sam supposed to believe or trust Aunt Vicky’s words when she has no relationship or history with her aunt? Has Sam been able to flesh out her feelings of both anger and loss by the end of the book? Is hope established?

    I do feel that Jenn Reese excelled at creating her setting. I loved the cluttered cottage and could easily visualize each room. Reese also succeeded in building tension within her fantasy world. The “hunting” in the woods with the storm and the menacing woods was truly engaging.

    I agree with Sara Beth regarding the variety and depth of responses to this book. I truly enjoy and appreciate the sharing of these reading experiences. It underscores the need for more books with multiple perspectives for multiple readers on this very important topic in children’s literature.

  12. Alexis Redhorse says:

    This is a really good discussion. I respect all viewpoints. I’m 20 and still running from my early experiences, but I feel strongly as Meredith in this book’s defense. Had it not been written as speculative fiction, it would likely be unbearable for me to read. The approach both heightens and distances the brutal facts. Interestingly, I did not have the same trapped animal instinct reading Fighting Words. I believe the genre adds to—rather than subtracts from— A Game of Fox and Squirrels appeal. It may offer young readers a fascinating, workable way to address their trauma. I looked up the 2020 Honor Book Scary Stories for Young Foxes, and it didn’t get all the stars or make all the lists either. This demonstrates that the Committee with consider an exceptional sleeper title.

  13. Meredith Burton says:

    Beautiful comment, Ms. Alexis!

    I do think it’s important to remember regarding the timeline that the journey of Caitlin and Sam is a continuous one. This fact is illustrated in the House Rules found at the beginning and end of Chapter Twenty-One. The main focus of the original version of the game is survival in whatever way you can. Sam and Caitlin, in finding a home with Vicky and Hannah, are now allowed to change the rules. New rules will be added, but they will be fair ones.
    Sam does not trust Aunt Vicky immediately. It isn’t until the climax that she is able to admit she needs help.

    Regarding the fox being bad: yes, he is. Children will notice this as will adults. There’s nothing wrong with this fact. Reese was clever in employing the fox folklore motif. Foxes are predators to squirrels, so it makes sense for Reese to use a fox as a villain. It’s a traditional approach. As emphasized last year in Scary Stories for Young Foxes, they can be heroes, too). However, sometimes an author needs to take the traditional route. I thought Ashander was a much more vivid character than Clifton, who was one-dimensional. Children will understand Ashander’s villainy more strongly.

  14. Anna Nielsen says:

    I’ve been going back and forth about this book for a few days, now. I think Sara Beth wrote a really useful and well-done introduction, which made me think about the book more positively. I can see what Courtney, Leonard, and Aud and others are saying, too. For me, what it comes down to, is that the book just didn’t work for me. The characters were insufficiently drawn for me to get enough of a grasp on them to care about them. Who is Aunt Vicky? Who is Hannah? What is their history with abuse, and is their relationship meant to be a point of interest? Who are the social workers? Was the mom a part of the abuse, or a part of it in terms if being complicit, and where are they and what are they doing? And the fox as abuser I get, and the squirrels as abusees I get, but the separation between real life and the fantasy game life was too indistinct and blurred, and the back and forths so imbalanced that I ended not caring about either. I kept rereading, trying to get into it. The book became an assignment. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I don’t believe the book was very well written. My notes are filled with pages of questions rather than compliments.

    • Meredith Burton says:

      Would you please be willing to provide some evidence as to why you feel the book was poorly written? Is this fact in relation to sentence structure, character development or something else? I do not mean to offend or put you on the spot. I am just genuinely curious as I thought the use of personification, the literary illusions, the carefully constructed use of third person point of view and the vivid descriptions made this one of the best written books of 2020.
      Thanks for your patience with me. I just want to know what I might have overlooked in my assessment of the story.

      Regarding Sam’s mother: In Chapter Eleven, Sam remembers how her mother often sits at the kitchen table and spins her wedding ring around and around her finger, “It made her think of her mother sitting at the kitchen table in their condo, drinking her glass of red wine and twisting her own wedding and engagement rings around her finger. Around and around, as if she were trying to secure them in place or to take them off” (138). This scene illustrates that Sam’s mother is trapped in the abusive relationship as well as her daughters. She does not participate in physically hurting her daughters, but her complacency allows the abuse to continue.

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