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.
“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.
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 email@example.com.
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