Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian Mckay Heidicker, illustrated by Junyi Wu
Scary Stories for Young Foxes
illustrated by Junyi Wu
Review Copy from MacMillan Publishers
Scary Stories for Young Foxes is a masterwork to be put in a place of honor on the shelf alongside a favorite of mine, A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, both for story structure and for violence, to put it bluntly. But, where Gidwitz's book lives entirely in the realm of fairy tales where children can have their heads cut off (by their father, nonetheless, and then put back on with life restored), Heidicker's straddles the realm of cautionary tales and real life, set squarely in a natural world where there are predators at every turn and death is real and permanent.
Scary Stories for Young Foxes begins as the haunted season arrives in Antler Wood. A den full of kits settled in for the night begs their mother for a scary story. She tries her best, but they are not sated and they sneak off to Bog Cavern, where there is promise they will hear tales that will turn their tails white. There, the storyteller, so old she appears to be all bones, begins in Eavy Wood with the story of Miss Vix, a teacher of life skills to a boisterous litter. The story quickly turns from playful teasing and ear nipping to danger when their gooey-eyed teacher snaps at the kits, her teeth making a horrible clicking, a yellow stench, dark and warm, emanating from her instead of the usual scent of "butterfly dust." The only one of her siblings to escape the deranged teacher, Mia finds her mother who instantly assesses the danger and flees with her surviving kit. Young readers will think that Miss Vix has become a zombie, trying to bite the brains of her students, and this is the perfect hook for kids reading this book on the promise of the title, looking for scares and horrors. They will get this page after page, just not quite how they might have expected. I wasn't fully sure of what Miss Vix was suffering until Mia's mother makes her drink water, confirming the spread of rabies in the wood. Not knowing the name for the metal traps they stumble across, the knife used by a human or the scaly, sharp-toothed creature living in the pond, the foxes speak of "silver roots," "silver claws" and Golgathursh's.
One by one, the kits leave the storyteller's den for the comfort of their mother. The stories continue with Uly, the lone male kit in his litter and born with a deformed and useless front leg. His six sisters tease and torment him mercilessly, despite the best efforts of his mother. But when the mythical Mr. Scratch proves real and every bit as menacing as the tales that swirl around him, Uly finds himself on the run as well. With every tale from the storyteller, the danger and imminent deaths of the fleeing fox kits feels closer and more inevitable. Mia and Uly's paths eventually cross after an especially harrowing tale set in the home of Beatrix Potter (who, in real life, had a penchant for etherizing animals she captured then gutting and stuffing them) but traveling together only seems to make their escapes harder - although it does also bring a few moments of levity and playfulness. The final story finds the kits facing the most dangerous killer of all, winter. Heidicker brings their story to a magnificent, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking end. Then he brings the story of the storyteller to a slightly more hopeful, slightly less grim and wholly satisfying end.
Heidicker's writing is evocative, filled with unforgettably beautiful and haunting imagery that brings the forests the stories travel through to life through sound, smell and taste. Wu's illustrations, and Carol Ly's marvelous design clearly define each tale the storyteller shares with the kits, their world appearing on black pages with white text, while the storyteller's tales appear on white pages with black print.
As an adult reader, especially one living in this time when the news of the world feels as oppressively dangerous as rabid foxes and Mr. Scratch, reading Scary Stories for Young Foxes was an intense experience for me. On top of that, I actively avoid stories where animals suffer, are injured or worse, especially when at the hands of humans. Yet, Heidicker's magnificent storytelling and eloquent writing kept me riveted and reading on, the whole book in (almost) one sitting. While Heidicker ends his book on a note of hope, the horror for the foxes of the forest isn't over - the storyteller and her mate hear chainsaws in the distance, devastating their woodland home. Knowing that change is coming, that change is always coming, the storyteller also knows that the stories she shares, passing on from litter to litter, generation to generation, are cautionary tales, teaching the kits how to protect themselves from the dangers of their world. Heidicker ends with these dark but hopeful words,
The kits of Antler Wood knew the stories she had to tell. And while the world was changing, growing scarier with each passing moon, that thought brought some small comfort to her heart.
For the time being, at least.
For the time being, Scary Stories for Young Foxes brought some comfort to my heart and I can't wait to pass it on to my students and other kits in need of the protection and the magic that all good stories have to offer.