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.
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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