Most new parents recognize the precarity of their position: they know they will have the opportunity to be their child's hero, at least some of the time; just as assuredly, they know they will be a disappointment at times, perhaps even an embarrassment. They know they will mess up, but they hope they will never become the villain. But sometimes, they are. Sometimes, they are the very thing that child needs to be rescued from. Who then will be the hero?
In A Game of Fox & Squirrels, Jenn Reese applies a deft touch to this heavy reality. Through the clever and artful integration of a board game, populated by squirrels and an unpredictable fox, Reese portrays a painful truth and a powerful hope. Children need heroes, and they sometimes find them in unexpected places.
A Game of Fox & Squirrels opens on the week of Samantha's 11th birthday, the week she and her sister Caitlyn are moving in with their Aunt Vicky and her wife Hannah. Caitlyn is out of the hospital now, though her throwing arm will be in a cast for awhile. And though Sam is glad they are ok, she wants to be back home in Los Angeles, back with mom and dad and dad's unpredictable temper. Vicky is her dad's sister, but they've never really known her. And though their house is quiet and the chickens are fascinating and the forest is large and lovely, Sam doesn't want to like it there. It's complicated.
In fact, what Reese does so well is demonstrate how complicated abuse is. It's rarely as clarity-coated as TV and movies make it seem. Sam and Caitlyn's dad isn't uniformly awful; like the fox in the game, he can be charming and thoughtful. As Maple the squirrel says,
Nobody is only one thing.
And it's true. People are complicated. And Sam wants to get home, so when she opens the game and Ashander the fox invites her on a hero's quest, of course she agrees. She must solve Ashander's riddles and perform the tasks in order to earn the Golden Acorn, which will grant her greatest wish. As Ashander says, "Every good hero must prove their worth, isn't that right?"
Skillfully entwining the rules to the game, the real life of case workers and new friends and impossibly kind Aunts, and the mystery (or is it magic?) of the forest world, where Ashander and Maple and Birch and Cedar reside, Reese builds a lush and utterly convincing world. The emotional complexities tell the whole story, honestly, without going too deeply into physical details that might be concerning or triggering to readers.
Instead, Reese pours out her skill upon the physical details of the Oregon landscape. From the car, Sam notices
The tree-guards along the side of the road laughed, their branchy shoulders rustling. Oh, they were arrogant, those trees.
Or when Sam falls in the forest and, "The stones left little divots in her skin, like they didn't want to be so easily forgotten." Or when the forest changed, "eager to show her its true self" and
Shadows reached up from the ground, looping dark tendrils around roots and pulling flowers into darkness. The sun tried to fight its way through the treetops but was thwarted by the dense canopy of green.
These are powerful and beautiful descriptions. But the greatest beauty of this lovely book is in the way Vicky (with Hannah) demonstrates unconditional love and care for Sam and Caitlyn. They are uncertain, and like any new parent, they worry they don't know enough and that they will mess up. But they are consistent and true, and in a short time, they prove to Sam that their promises can be trusted, that their love is not contingent. And that kind of love is always heroic.
The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.
OST: If it can find an advocate on the committee, this book has a real chance for its distinctive and compelling use of the game and its emotional honesty.
Previous titles under consideration:
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
A Many Feathered Thing by Lisa Gerlits
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
Chirp by Kate Messner
Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang
When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender
All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat