When I recently wanted to pick up a new-to-me book, I had A Game of Fox and Squirrels sitting on my TBR pile and decided to give it a try:
Winter is fast approaching and you, brave squirrel, must prepare! Your survival depends on finding and storing nuts for the cold months to come. You will do this by collecting “sets” and “runs” of cards. So simple! But there’s a catch. Isn’t there always? In this game, that catch is the FOX.
Okay, so this is a MG novel that came out fairly recently. Oh, looks like 2020. Well, that counts as fairly recently. I’ve met Jen Reese now and then, so I noticed when this popped up on Twitter or somewhere, and it sounded good, so I picked it up and dropped it on top of my TBR pile.
I haven’t exactly been in a reading slump – not exactly – but when I’m working on stuff of my own and not reading a lot of other peoples’ books, this kind of produces a … not sure what to call this … an artificial reading slump, I guess, as I honestly lose interest in reading. It’s interesting how different this is when I’ve been reading a lot; I get into an alternate habit of reading all the time and go through a lot of books in a hurry. So I’m usually either reading almost nothing or reading a lot, and short MG novels are one good way to transition from one state to the other. This time I picked up this one, A Game of Fox and Squirrels.
Overall reaction: I liked it. It’s a very young MG story, very simple. The protagonist, Samantha, is quite young, maybe twelve or so. That’s how she comes across to me, about that age. That means that the story is aimed at readers a little younger than that, maybe ten or so. That seems about right.
The whole story is from Sam’s pov. She is a highly unreliable narrator, which is not to say that the reader isn’t going to understand what happened. Reese doesn’t come right out and announce at the beginning that the two girls have been removed from their parents’ home by Child Protective Services, but even a very young reader is going to have absolutely no trouble figuring that out. The main character arc is Sam moving from wanting to go back home to her parents where everything is familiar and she can go to school with her friends, to realizing how bad her parents’ home really was and how much better her new home with Aunt Vicky is. As I said, a very simple story. The simplicity of the plot and characters suit this particular story.
The Game of Fox and Squirrels comes into this because there is this card game where you’re playing squirrels collecting nuts for the winter, but there are Fox cards that create challenges. Almost at once the Fox himself turns up and immediately manipulates Sam into doing things for him. This is not a bit subtle. The reader, including MG readers, are going to understand just about everything from the first moment the Fox turns up. This is not actually a criticism. It’s interesting to me that Reese made this story work even when so much is so obvious. It’s obvious what Sam’s character arc is going to involve, it’s obvious how the plot is going to work out, it’s basically obvious how all the other characters are going to interact, from the older sister to Aunt Vicky to the squirrels. Oh, by the way, there are Squirrels as well as the Fox, and actually Maple, one of the Squirrels, may have been my favorite character. She isn’t exactly important – or she is – she is a little more complex than most of the other characters. Maple suffers a personal failure late in the story, which draws me toward her because I would like to fix that. This is the exact kind of situation where I see something in someone else’s novel and immediately want to pick up that character, integrate her into a novel of mine – in a different form, of course, but a character who comes to that precise sort of crisis– so that I can fix the thing that went wrong.
Okay, so, things I particularly liked: The excerpts from the rules for the game. How terrifying the Fox becomes as the story progresses. How quickly the Fox dwindles when the family comes together, and how the house rules for the game immediately reorient the game to one of cooperation and success rather than anxious struggling to collect nuts and appease the Fox. When the Fox turns up, every player may contribute cards so no individual player is too badly hurt. Yep, good rule.
Things that might have been handled better: It’s a puzzle how the three Squirrels got pulled into the Fox’s service in the first place, and why they haven’t been eaten. I think that could have been clarified quite easily. Also, I would REALLY like to know where the game came from and whether Aunt Vicky used to play it and DID SHE EVER ENCOUNTER THE FOX? ??? This is totally left out. The connection between the stuffed animals in storage and the Fox and the Squirrels is really vague, and honestly this vagueness is not a thing that worked well for me. Did Aunt Vicky know what she was doing when she put that game in Sam’s room? If so, my goodness, a little warning would have been nice. If not, then is Sam the only person who ever got pulled into the game this way? It’s clear the Fox really exists in the real world, that’s not vague at all, so … it’s a definite puzzle.
Overall: This story is message fic, but it’s message fic done really well. The story is about how abuse can be perceived in unhelpful ways by a child in an abusive family and how that child’s perception needs to shift so healthier relationships can be comprehended and accepted. This is not at all subtle; it’s not subtext, it’s right there in the text, with the Fox and the Squirrels added as decorations around the edges of the basic message. This works not just because everyone can pretty much get behind this kind of message, but also because, simple as this story is, it’s just a good story, well told and engaging.