A Game of Fox and Squirrels by Jenn Reese. Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, April 2020. ISBN 9781250252562. Read from ARC – Ebook on Libby.
It’s Samantha’s eleventh birthday, and she feels like a failure. She and her sister Caitlin, who has a broken arm, are moving to their Aunt Vicky and her wife’s house – whom they have never met – near Portland, Oregon from Los Angelos. Aunt Vicky lives near the woods and has chickens, including a favorite named Lady Louise to whom Sam is instantly attracted.
Despite liking all these things, Sam really wants to get back home. Still, when Aunt Vicky gives her Aunt Vicky’s own favorite game, A Game of Fox and Squirrels, she can’t help opening the box and looking at the beautifully illustrated cards – a dashing fox, lady and knight squirrels – and reading the rules, which are interspersed between chapters and are delightful:
Winter isn’t the only thing the squirrel must plan for; there is also the Fox. The Fox can appear at any time.
The Fox might be happy. (Happy foxes are a joy!)
The Fox might be charming. (Charming foxes are hard to predict!)
But sooner or later…
The Fox will be hunting.
Then, a real fox, Ashander, dressed just like the fox in the game appears in Sam’s room. He’s happy and charming, promising that if she follows his instructions exactly, she can complete the Quest for the Golden Acorn and prove her loyalty to him, and he will be able to return things to the way they were before. She’s always wanted to be a hero – but even the adorable squirrels who are helping her become more and more nervous as the tasks continue.
Over the course of the story, Sam also remembers her parents and the happy times they had, bonding over National Geographic maps and ice cream. But she’s circling around the incident that sent them to Oregon, remembering in little bursts that she tries to suppress. We as readers never do get the full incident start to finish, and Lucas, the son of Aunt Vicky’s work partner Armen, realizes the full consequences much sooner than Sam does.
Though I’ve been telling you about Sam and her journey, the other characters here are all strong. Caitlin relaxes from her perfect older sister role. Aunt Vicky is doing her best to provide the safe environment she knows the girls need, even though it brings up memories of her own trauma. Her wife, Hannah, is both very supportive and busts stereotypes of rule-focused Chinese-Americans by cheerfully tells them of the daredevil exploits of her youth. Lucas has his own journey, though I loved that he has long hair like my own son and knits.
The clear parallels between Ashander and Sam’s father make this a little more metaphorical than I usually prefer my fantasy, but it comes together very well. The Golden Acorn is real, and so is the danger that Sam puts herself in to get it. Even knowing more or less what situation Sam was coming from, I kept reading to find out how Sam’s quest would end.
I’ve been writing about the serious aspects so far, but there is also whimsy in the carefully dressed squirrels, and humor throughout both the real and the fantasy aspects of the book. New family and friends old and new provide the support needed to make this a quietly triumphant story of rewriting the rules and making a new life after trauma.
For those looking for more books on this topic, Fran Wilde’s Riverland also uses fantasy to address issues of abuse for middle grade readers.