To be a reader is, in many ways, to be constantly on the hunt. There are reliable favorites that we might turn to for comfort, for assurance, for familiarity like a well-worn sweater. But there is a special joy in discovering something new in a book - a new way of expressing something ancient and universal, a new voice bringing a world to life.
Though Jenn Reese is not new to the writing world, finding her latest middle-grades novel, A Game of Fox & Squirrels, felt something like a discovery, even though I take no credit for the find. That's how it works, really. We pass our discoveries, one reader to the next, each hoping the joy is multiplied.
Reese is an artist and a writer, and I'm grateful for the time she spared for this interview and for the brilliant world she has built for young readers, especially those who understand the fear of abuse and the complications of loving someone who might hurt you. Her book has a hard truth at its core, but Reese's sensitivity shines in every word.
SBW: In A Game of Fox & Squirrels, you create a setting that is so rich, so vividly rendered, and you accomplish this feat in both the domestic sphere of Aunt Vicky and Hannah’s house and the wildness of the surrounding forests. Would you talk a little about the place you’ve built in this book as well as its connections to the place you make your home?
JR: When I was younger, people used to tell me that where you lived didn’t make much difference – your problems would still be your problems anywhere you went. But I completely disagree. Places have their own “background noise,” and moving can completely change the shape of your life. It has for me, on multiple occasions.
When writing Samantha’s story, I wanted Oregon to feel different from Los Angeles in as many ways as possible. Sam and her family lived in a small, Los Angeles apartment in the oppressive heat of a SoCal summer, which exacerbated the feeling of being trapped that so many kids in unsafe situations experience. When Sam gets to Oregon, the air is cooler, she has her own room, and an entire forest waits outside the door. She gets to experience physical solitude almost the first time. It’s not just a change of setting, it’s an entire paradigm shift.
Sometimes the change in our lives is so incremental that we barely notice, and sometimes the entire world changes overnight. Sometimes we need that big shakeup to knock us out of our patterns and help us reshape our relationships. Sam loses everything familiar to her, and although that exacerbates her pain, it ultimately helps her heal.
SBW: The publishing industry is undoubtedly a crowded and sometimes confusing place, perhaps nowhere more than in children’s literature. I am consistently intrigued by the ways a title finds its way in the world, especially those by debut authors or authors who write “genre” fiction like SFF or speculative fiction. How has it been for you, attempting to usher a book into the world during a pandemic and as a “genre” writer? Have you faced obstacles?
JR: Quite honestly, it’s been difficult. It seems that people buying books during quarantine are mostly sticking to the names they already know. It’s harder to browse the virtual shelves, to see the carefully crafted shelf-talkers that most booksellers use to handsell. Trying to climb out of relative obscurity has felt like an insurmountable task. But I’m also fortunate in many ways: my team at Henry Holt has continued to believe in A Game of Fox & Squirrels, my friends and peers in the writing community have gone above and beyond to support me, and several reviewers, librarians, and booksellers have significantly raised awareness of my book through their advocacy. In short, it’s been a year of both grief and gratitude, with almost nothing in between.
SBW: Recently, I was rankled by a discussion regarding a trade review that described A Game of Fox & Squirrels as allegory, where the participants seemed to assert that allegory isn’t on par with a "true novel."
I do not understand how allegory would automatically be deemed less than. That said, I wouldn't call this book an allegory. I wonder if you’d be willing to chime in? What’s wrong with allegory? Are you offended by the designation?
JR: There’s a lot to unpack in this series of questions!
First, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with allegory, which is simply another tool in our story-telling toolbox. Allegory is usually the personification of a non-human idea, often intended to teach something. We see it a lot in political cartoons, where the Statue of Liberty might represent the American ideal, or an elephant might represent the GOP. In the animated show Big Mouth, there is a talking mosquito that represents anxiety and a huge purple cat that represents depression. Most stories nowadays are not wholly allegorical—I can’t think of any offhand!—but they may use the technique for very specific purposes, and I think that’s great!
I don’t think of A Game of Fox & Squirrels as an allegory. Ashander the fox does not represent an abstract concept, he’s a stand-in for a very real type of person. He does not exist to teach a lesson, but rather to illustrate a certain set of behaviors from which Sam and the reader can draw conclusions. Honestly, he’s barely even a metaphor. He is Sam’s father, one step removed.
Laura Miller has a great essay in Slate about the difference between metaphor and allegory (which I absolutely read before trying to answer this question): “Save the Allegory! An entire literary tradition is being forgotten because writers use the term allegory to mean, like, whatever they want.” I highly recommend it.
SBW: On that note, how would you describe A Game of Fox & Squirrels?
JR: I think of A Game of Fox & Squirrels as contemporary fantasy, plain and simple. I’m telling a story set in the contemporary world but with fantastical elements. That it can be read on multiple levels is a feature of many, many fantasy and science fiction novels. Sometimes by taking a few steps away from something, we can see it more clearly. Speculative fiction has always excelled at that technique.
SBW: We talk a lot about the importance of “normalizing” in literature - from trans characters to LGBTQ+ relationships, books like Snapdragon and shows like She-Ra are doing important work. Aunt Vicky and Hannah’s marriage could fall into this category as well. Sometimes, however, I question the language of making something “normal.” Aren’t we all extraordinary? Isn’t a loving relationship like Vicky and Hannah’s somewhat miraculous? Is there a better way to describe this kind of work?
JR: I think “normal” in this context is not in opposition to “extraordinary,” but to “other.” We’ve got to fight the othering first. People need to stop assuming that families look a certain way, and part of how we do this is by presenting the full range of family shapes as fact, without question. Within the last year, Canadian comedy Schitt’s Creek has been lauded for normalizing LGBTQ+ relationships. It shouldn’t be necessary to celebrate a show for doing that, but it clearly still is. Do I long for a day when this work is unnecessary? Oh, yes. But we’re still a long way off, and until then I’ll be out there “normalizing” as much as I possibly can.
SBW: In the powerful author’s note, you write,
This is the book I always knew I had to write. My own story is not unusual; in fact, maybe it’s your story, too.
Why did this story feel so necessary? How do you hope it will be received by those who have experienced abuse and those who have not?
JR: I started writing when I was 25, and the first story I ever wrote was about a girl living in an abusive household who uses fantasy to escape. It wasn’t very good. Every few years, another story with the same subject matter would bubble out. None of them worked. My inability to give voice to my childhood experiences has felt like a cork in a bottle. I kept trying to wiggle it free, to let out all the words inside the bottle, all the things I was taught never to say. The day I finished the first draft of A Game of Fox & Squirrels, that cork finally popped. I felt such a rush of grief, followed by relief. It was incredibly healing.
With regards to readers, I have the same hope that most writers do: that some readers will discover newfound understanding and empathy, while other readers will see themselves and thus find hope. I always think of Emily Style’s “windows and mirrors” metaphor. This piece by Katy Tessman provides a great overview with even more metaphorical options.
SBW: You have a wide range of additional creative outlets: graphic design, art, knitting. Was it easy to find your way into a life of creating or did it take some stumbling along the way?
JR: Much like reading, creative outlets are a form of escape for me. As a kid, I wanted to be an artist and drew all the time. I played Dungeons & Dragons and made up magic items and monsters. My friends and I created superheroes and wrote comics. These are all ways to escape reality, but also to reshape it. To right wrongs, to create loving families, to bring objects of beauty into the world. I love Story in all its forms and across almost every medium. There are a lot of writers who say they could never do anything else, but that’s not the case with me. I’d be fine as long as I could keep creating in some way.
And now the requisite SBW Top Ten:
Who are your heroes?
In general? People who learn from their mistakes. People willing to change. People who get back up after they’ve been knocked down.
But I’m guessing a specific answer might be fun, too. I admire Ellen Raskin for not only writing The Westing Game, one of my all-time favorite books, but also for designing the iconic cover of A Wrinkle in Time. Award-winning writer and graphic designer? Definite #goals.
Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?
Reader! I’ve been doing that my whole life.
Who/what are you reading these days?
Like many people, I had a tough time reading in 2020. Right now I’m gulping down science fiction and fantasy books so I can vote more thoughtfully for the Norton, SFWA’s award for middle grade and young adult speculative literature. I recently finished Darcie Little Badger’s Elatsoe, Claribel A. Ortega’s Ghost Squad, Deva Fagan’s Rival Magic, and Christina Soontornvat’s A Wish in the Dark. Next up is Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water, which I hadn’t realized is set in my neighborhood of Portland!
What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?
Brave in the Woods by Tracy Holczer is a contemporary middle grade published January 5th. It’s a beautiful, heart-healing book about a girl whose brother has gone missing in Afghanistan. I cried several times while reading it. I hope to see it on award lists next year.
What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?
This made me laugh. I am a cultural omnivore given to binging truly unsafe amounts of media. I have watched all the shows that aren’t too dark or depressing for me: She-Ra, Bridgerton, Lucifer, GBBO, Schitt’s Creek, etc. You name it, and I’ve watched at least one episode. I’m also a fairly hardcore video gamer. For my 50th birthday this year, I splurged on a Playstation 5 and have been spending as much time as possible roaming through gorgeous, distant virtual worlds.
What is one important lesson you got from your upbringing?
That you find and make your true family.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an artist for most of my formative years, until I got intimidated by other artists. Then I read an article on quarks in National Geographic and wanted to be a particle physicist all the way through high school. A part of me still wants to be both of those things.
What constitutes a really good day for you?
Any day I’ve helped a friend. Everything else can go wrong, and if I’ve done that, it’s been a good day.
What is one thing you are afraid of?
Not being there for a friend when they need me. (See above.)
What is one thing you hope for?
I hope just one person reads A Game of Fox & Squirrels and realizes they can leave a toxic situation—maybe not immediately, but eventually. That would mean everything to me.