Maybe a Fox
Kathi Appelt & Alison Mcghee
Simon & Schuster, 2016 256 pgs.
Sylvie & Jules/Jules & Sylvie. Even though these year-apart sisters are different in many ways, Jules is careful and loves rocks and Sylvie is impulsive and loves running, they are as close as two sisters can be. Often alone in their rural home while Dad works, they mourn their deceased mother, creating perfect snow families during the long Vermont winter to commemorate her memory. Now that the girls are getting older Sylvie is beginning to get on her younger sister's nerves and when Sylvie suggests racing down to the forbidden slip to make a wish, Jules declines the adventure. Sylvie never returns, leaving severe grief and guilt in her wake. Meanwhile, just as Sylvie's soul leaves her body, a female fox is born in a nearby den. This fox is special and immediately imprintis onto Jules, often following her from a distance and watching her from the bushes. Sam, Jule's best friend helps her get through the initial stages of mourning and stands by her side when she returns to school. His brother Elk recently returned from Afghanistan, where his best friend was killed, and is still suffering from the aftereffects of war and loss. Elk provides comfort to Jules and together, through rock collecting and a discovery of a secret grotto, they slowly start to heal. The action reaches a climax at the end of the story when a mythological giant cat called a Catamount sets forth a series of events revealing the true identity of the fox and bringing Jules back to the land of the living and moving forward with her life.
This is a beautifully told story by two powerful authors of children's literature. Its is not a traditional high fantasy, but more of a mythical/folklore type story, including magical local history, the discovery of a secret and possibly supernatural grotto, a legendary beast, and humans souls entering animals to provide comfort and protection to loved ones. The quality of the writing is the real star here and every word matters and was chosen with care. Appelt, who won a Newbery Honor for her book The Underneath may have another Newbery on her hands for this carefully crafted title. A quiet story, it will appeal to thoughtful and sensitive children. Many books have been published in the past few years featuring children dealing with death. This book is sad, but there is an audience for that. Stories need conflict in order to move the plot forward and a terrible problem in order to propel the main character towards growth. Death provides that catalyst in books for young people and although its sad, it makes for a powerful story. Although the main character is a girl, both boys and girls will enjoy this book and relate to it and the character of Sam adds some gender balance. The magic is subtle, the emotions are real and the characters are vividly drawn. My only complaint is that I am tired of books featuring wolves and foxes. I must have read at least ten of them in the past few years. Trend or coincidence? Not sure, but, even though foxes and wolves are cool, I am ready to move on to other types of animals.