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Little Fox in the Forest

On a bitterly cold January evening, a friend gave me a stack of ARCs of soon-to-be-released picture books. I meant to read them during the next day’s planning period at school, but the day got away from me and it wasn’t until near the end of the school day that I had a few minutes to look through them. Stephanie Graegin’s wordless Little Fox in the Forest was second in the stack, and halfway through my first reading I clearly remember thinking, “Why didn’t [my friend] warn me about this one?” Little Fox pulled me into another world – and I didn’t return until the shrill dismissal bell rang, jerking me out of the book’s sunlit forest. After herding head-to-toe bundled children through the hallways, I reached the car-rider area and realized that I had Little Fox clutched tightly against my chest. That is what this book does to readers: it goes straight to the heart, and ten months later I still find myself wanting to hug the book after every reading. Don’t misunderstand me. Didactic and saccharine picture books make my skin crawl. I do not tolerate them. With Little Fox in the Forest, Graegin accomplishes a nearly impossible task: through her enchanting illustrations, she creates a world and tells a story that evokes emotion and delights the imagination without a trace of sentimentality or condescension.

The jacket’s use of colors (deep greens and browns combining with pastel greens, yellows, and pinks) and design elements work together exquisitely. If the little yellow door on a tree and the forest animals peeking out from behind trees aren’t enough, then the scampering orange fox entices readers to open this book to see how this purposeful creature’s story unfolds. And because Robin Smith has forever influenced the way I read picture books, I lay the book open and am delighted to discover a wraparound jacket with the other characters following the fox with expressions that mirror my curiosity. Under the jacket is a bright sunny yellow cover with our yellow-sweater fox framed in the middle. Its simplicity beautifully contrasts with the jacket’s detailed artwork.

I have seen few picture books that use color so well. The endpapers, title page, and first few spreads have a monochromatic cerulean-hued palette. Our first splash of color is the orange fox. Though more colors are gradually added (white frames and a brown bear with a bright red sweater), the next few pages remain faithful to that palette. AND THEN, in three perfectly placed panels, we see the fox and children leaving the cerulean world through a door in the hedge. Think about the feeling you had when you watched The Wizard of Oz for the first time and went with Dorothy into the Technicolor land of Oz. This is how the page-turn feels. The astonished expressions on the children’s faces say it all. We have left monochromatic reality and entered an entrancing forest world bursting with color. Graegin’s colors create the warm and whimsical forest atmosphere. They are festive and fresh, but not flamboyant; bright and bold, but not brash. The sunlight-dappled forest, ivy-covered stone cottages, and emerald-green trees create an inviting and magical world. When characters (animal or human) are interacting in significant ways, they are backed by a pale-blue or yellow frame. This decision is effective as it allows readers to focus on the characters and their internal/external conflicts and resolutions. When the little girl and boy leave the colorful forest and return to cerulean-blue reality, the effect is powerful — especially when one notices the two spots of color in the illustration of the little girl going to sleep. Is your curiosity piqued?

Though very few things give me as much pleasure as reading aloud to a group of students, this was not how I wanted to share Little Fox in the Forest for the first time. My librarian instinct was telling me that this book needed to be shared with a child on my lap. I called a kindergarten teacher and asked to borrow a girl and boy, and we three settled into my overstuffed armchair and experienced the book together. I’ll never forget their facial expressions and astute observations and insights. They pored over every illustration, noticing details that I had missed – details that are put in the book for children. The titles of the books on the endpapers give hints of the upcoming adventure. The little girl is reading a book about a unicorn and has a unicorn drawing tacked on her bedroom wall (title page). There is a swinging bridge in between two tree houses. I let two fourth-grade girls look at it together and they were equally as enthralled. They both begged to check out the book afterward.

In my opinion, there is not another 2017 picture book that so fully “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” Choosing “something treasured” (the only words in the book, written on the chalkboard) for class show-and-tell, fiercely loving a stuffed animal or blanket, the idea of a magical forest community — these are things children understand. But then, through masterful storytelling, Graegin moves them to a place of deep empathy. Children are faced with an internal dilemma. Would they be able to part with their beloved stuffed animal for the sake of friend? Big ideas are conveyed in a sensibility that is developmentally perfect for children. The ambiguous ending allows children room to wonder, “Did these events happen, or are they just the little girl’s imagination? Or was it a dream, perhaps?”

Occasionally I’ll read aloud a picture book to children that causes me to wonder if the illustrations (in the name of “distinguished”) distract or confuse children. Little Fox’s illustrations tell the story with a delicacy that allows readers to notice all the details that are woven in throughout the story. If the illustrations had been too loud or rambunctious they would not match the girl’s gentle and tender spirit or the soft, magical forest world. Though there are many, one element that lifts Little Fox to a level of excellence is the amount of characterization communicated through appearance, body language, and facial expression. One look at that top-hat-adorned weasel and you know he’s up to no good. On one of the final panels, the fox is lying on his bed with his back facing the little girl, who is peeking into his bedroom. The fox’s sadness and the little girl’s internal conflict are palpable.

On the back endpapers the purple unicorn (a gift from the fox) is placed at the end of the bookshelf. If the jacket is on the book, the flap covers the unicorn. As I understand it, this is enough to knock a book out of the running for Caldecott recognition. Here’s my question: is an illustrator’s dedication to artistic integrity and excellence more important than keeping the Caldecott committee in mind? In Little Fox in the Forest, due to the placement of the fox on the front endpapers, the unicorn must be placed where it will be covered by the jacket. I applaud Graegin for remaining true to the story and its readers.

As Martha encouraged us in her Wolf in the Snow review, I encourage you to savor Little Fox in the Forest. Read it once, twice, three times. New details, depth, and insights will be revealed with each reading. Will the Caldecott committee agree that Little Fox in the Forest is indeed “something treasured”?

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Little Fox in the Forest.

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Emmie Stuart About Emmie Stuart

Emmie Stuart is a school librarian at the Percy Priest Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Comments

  1. I am so so thrilled to see that Calling Caldecott has expanded to include this fabulous title to their qualification lineup, as I am a huge fan of the book and of the lovely Stephanie Graegin’s art in general. I well remember that several years back The Horn Book’s ballot nominating committee included her exhilarating illustrations for Emily Jenkins’ “Water in the Park” which I applauded, and just last year her Christmas offering “The Lost Gift” was somewhat of an underrated gem. I do consider “Little Fox in the Forest” as her masterpiece, and as such well-desrving of Caldecott scrunity in this incredibly competitive year. I fully agree with you Emmie (and with Martha on her advice to Wolf in the Snow” readers) that this book does absolutely require multiple engagements. I LOVE your reference to “The Wizard of Oz” while coming to terms with the first experience with the book and heartily concur with you on the beauty and effectiveness of the wraparound cover. I also congratulate Ms. Graegin for her artistic integrity, and in the end would think the committee won’t be concerned about the issue you broach. This is an astonishly detailed and interative book that makes for a fantastic time with the young ones (in my case first graders) and like all great works each go-around results in fresh revelations.

    This is quite a statement:

    “In my opinion, there is not another 2017 picture book that so fully “displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” ”

    But I’d be hard-pressed to argue it. The book unfailingly brings on student engagement and debate, one true baraometer of a book’s worth and appeal. And yes, you hit it right on when you note the lack of sentimentality (Bravo, Ms. Graegin!) and that despite this, the book in undenyably enchanting. Such a sublime and challenging wordless book that should surely be gaining the attention of the committee.

    Much loved this fantastic essay!

  2. Wow, I’ll definitely have to check this one out.

    I wonder if it’s easier for a wordless book to avoid being didactic and sentimental? I feel like it would be harder to create a captivating wordless book, though. I’ve definitely read many books and thought they had too many words, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one and thought it needed more.

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    Emmie, what a great review for a great book! This book caught me unaware, too! I’m a sucker for wordless books and this one deserves a lot of attention from the committee for all the reasons you mentioned.

  4. Count me as another fan of this book, for all the reasons you’ve already mentioned. I very much appreciated how understated the facial expressions were. It’s the anti-Elephant & Piggy. Which is I think why it appeals to older readers.
    But why on earth would the placement of the unicorn on the end papers disqualify it for the Caldecott? That seems a tad doctrinal. I do understand that it poses a challenge for the librarian preparing the book for circulation but disqualifying? Really? I’d love to hear more about that.

  5. Susan Dailey says:

    Rosanne, I doubt the unicorn “disqualifies” the book. It probably isn’t even a “fatal flaw.” However, for libraries that tape the dust jacket down, this detail will be hidden. This might cause the committee to choose a different wonderful book that doesn’t have this problem.

  6. Emmie Stuart says:

    Sam, “The Lost Gift” is indeed an underrated gem. I’m glad to hear that you are sharing Little Fox with your 1st graders. I love how you use the word interactive to describe the book -this book is can be read by oneself as well as with other people. Another mark of a high-quality book!

    Cassandra, you bring up an interesting question regarding wordless books and sentimentality! Without words, a sense of condescension or didactic messages can be somewhat avoided. Hope you get a chance to experience Little Fox soon!

    Susan, I’m glad you see Little Fox’s merit and charm! I certainly hope the Unicorn at the back isn’t a fatal flaw!

    Rosanne, YES regarding the understated facial expressions. Ironically, I think the lack of loud expression give the animals more character. I 100% agree with you about the Unicorn and legalism of the award. Hopefully, fingers crossed that the Caldecott committee won’t let it be a deal breaker!

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