Maybe a Fox (Hardcover)
This sad, beautiful story about a grief stricken girl and a mysterious young fox is told with nuance and compassion; weaving together devastating loss, burning wishes, Native American legends, a hidden grotto, and love transcendent… a heady mix for a young reader to be sure, but seamlessly drawing together the human, animal and spirit worlds in its exploration of sorrow and destiny.— From Betsy's Best
Sylvie and Jules, Jules and Sylvie. Better than just sisters, better than best friends, they’d be identical twins if only they’d been born in the same year. And if only Sylvie wasn’t such a fast—faster than fast—runner. But Sylvie is too fast, and when she runs to the river they’re not supposed to go anywhere near to throw a wish rock just before the school bus comes on a snowy morning, she runs so fast that no one sees what happens…and no one ever sees her again. Jules is devastated, but she refuses to believe what all the others believe, that—like their mother—her sister is gone forever.
At the very same time, in the shadow world, a shadow fox is born—half of the spirit world, half of the animal world. She too is fast—faster than fast—and she senses danger. She’s too young to know exactly what she senses, but she knows something is very wrong. And when Jules believes one last wish rock for Sylvie needs to be thrown into the river, the human and shadow worlds collide.
Writing in alternate voices—one Jules’s, the other the fox’s—Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee tell the searingly beautiful tale of one small family’s moment of heartbreak, a moment that unfolds into one that is epic, mythic, shimmering, and most of all, hopeful.
Alison McGhee is the New York Times bestselling author of Someday, as well as Dear Sister, What I Leave Behind, Pablo and Birdy, Where We Are, Maybe a Fox with Kathi Appelt, Firefly Hollow, Little Boy, So Many Days, Star Bright, A Very Brave Witch, Dear Brother, and the Bink and Gollie books. Her other children’s books include All Rivers Flow to the Sea, Countdown to Kindergarten, and Snap!. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Laguna Beach, California. You can visit her at AlisonMcGhee.com.
themselves. These rocks are for writing a burning wish that might just come true when cast into the Slip. Sylvie, 12, is a runner whose burning wish is to run faster; but one morning when she doesn’t return from a last-minute dash to the Slip, Jules can only find a tree root poking out of the path, followed by a gash in the snow that ends at the river. And just like that, Sylvie is gone forever.
Elsewhere in the forest, a fox gives birth to three kits and knows that her little girl, Senna, is Kennen—spiritually connected to another living creature. As Senna grows and learns “a thousand years of fox knowledge” from the smells and sounds around her, Jules and her father struggle to cope with Sylvie’s death, their grief compounded by the lingering loss of the girls’ mother a few years earlier. Jules runs through what-if and if-only scenarios that would have kept her sister alive, alternately feeling despair and anger over what has transpired. Her inability to control her emotions rings true, and readers will empathize with her desire to find her feet in a world “After Sylvie.”
Despite the heavy nature of the story, it maintains a forward momentum and resists taking on a brooding atmosphere. This is due in part to the way the narrative shifts, drawing on different characters’ experiences with death. The girls’ friend Sam had a burning wish for his brother, Elk, to return safely from Afghanistan; though he did, Elk’s best friend did not, and Jules and Elk form a quiet camaraderie in their search for solace. Rules and rituals evolve to remember departed loved ones, create order, and stay safe:
Jules sorts her rocks, her dad devises more Do Nots.
Throughout, Jules chases the question, “Where do you go when you die?” It's a query she and Sylvie used to answer with the Maybe game, postulating “Maybe you fly away like a bluebird” or maybe you simply shrink until no one can see you. Once Sylvie dies, this question is joined by another: why did Sylvie want to run so fast? Jules’ sister had always kept this a secret, but both answers, as it turns out, are wrapped up in Senna.
Many readers will quickly guess the connection between Senna, Sylvie, and Jules, but the exact implications to the plot are not as easily discerned. Additionally, the concept of Kennen imparts another avenue for the authors to explore grief, offering a comforting spiritual explanation that is not tied to religion. While this may not resonate with everyone, the fantasy element inherent to Senna’s story helps keep the book’s serious aspects from overwhelming young readers.
Neither author is a stranger to writing poignant animal stories that tackle weighty themes, as Appelt proved in her Newbery Honor book, The Underneath (2008), and McGhee showed in Firefly Hollow (2015). Together, they create a delicate world that effortlessly impresses itself upon the reader. It is a world where bad things can happen for no good reason, where catching sight of a fox means luck, where love transcends all boundaries, and maybe death doesn’t have to be an ending.
— Booklist *STARRED*
Appelt(The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp) and McGhee (Firefly Hollow) create anintoxicating blend of realism and myth in a novel involving a grieving child,ancient legends, and a mysterious fox. When Sylvie, whose burning wish is torun faster than she has ever run, disappears into a Vermont forest and isassumed dead, Jules, her younger sister, feels a sorrow like no other. Just asanguished are Jules’s father and their neighbor Elk, a veteran who knows whatit’s like to lose a loved one. Then there is the fox, who seems to beckon11-year-old Jules into the same Vermont woods. Breaking her father’s rule tonever leave their property, Jules embarks on a quest both dangerous andmarvelous. Evocative third-person narration brings the wonders of the wildernessto life and underscores the mysterious connections between humans, nature, anddestiny. Appelt and McGhee offer just enough clues to keep readers absorbedwhile delving into the powerful emotions of two inexplicably connectedcreatures. Ages 10–14.
— Publishers Weekly *STARRED REVIEW*
Eleven-year-old Jules, a budding geologist, and hertwelve-year-old sister Sylvie, the fastest kid in school, live withtheir father in rural Vermont. Because the girls’ mother died when Juleswas small, her memories, frustratingly, are dim. She does remember theawful sight of their mother collapsing onto the kitchen floor, and thensix-year-old Sylvie sprinting as fast as she could to get help, but it was toolate. And now Sylvie is the one who has disappeared: one morning before schoolshe takes off running in the woods and never comes back; they think she trippedinto the river and was swept away. At the same time, a fox kit, Senna, is born,with the instinctual desire to watch over and protect Jules. Because foxes areconsidered good luck, Jules’s occasional glimpses of Senna bring her some peace.A catamount, too, is rumored to be in the woods, along with a bear, and atbook’s climax, the human, animal, and (most affectingly) spirit worldscollide and converge. This is a remarkably sad story that offers upmeasures of comfort through nature, family, community, and theinterconnectedness among them. The sisters’ best friend, Sam, who ishimself grieving for Sylvie and desperately longs to see that catamount,is happy to have his brother Elk home from Afghanistan, but Elk’s ownbest friend Zeke didn’t return, leaving Elk bereft; he and Jules mourn theirlosses in the woods. Zeke’s grandmother is the one to whom Sylvie ran whentheir mother collapsed and who now brings soup for Jules, and for her kind,stoic, heartbroken father. A good cry can be cathartic, and this bookabout nourishing one’s soul during times of great sadness does the trick.
— The Horn Book Magazine
Twelve-year-old Sylvie, the older of the two Sherman sisters, is the runner, the fast, impetuous one. A year younger, Jules is a rock collector who takes her time to think things through. The morning of the last snowfall of the season in rural Vermont, Jules and Sylvie build a miniature snow family before getting ready for school. Sylvie wants to be fast, “so fast that…” but she never finishes that sentence,and Jules isn’t sure why her sister is so focused on speed. After playing in the snow, Sylvie darts off into the woods to throw a wishing rock into the Slip—and that’s the last time anyone sees her. At that moment, a fox kit is born. One of a litter of three, this kit is a “kennen,” a being that has an understanding that others do not possess and a destiny that it cannot escape. It’s tied to Jules and to Sylvie. Although Sylvie’s body is not found, everyone knows she drowned in the river and is gone. Jules thinks of it as “the After Sylvie” time, and she and her father grieve together, struggling to cobble together some hope for the future. There are some heavy elements in this beautifully written middle grade novel: the death of Sylvie and Jules’s mother several years before the story begins, the devastating disappearance/death of Sylvie, and the grieving of a neighbor who was deployed with his best friend to Afghanistan. But despite these sad events, the descriptions of rural Vermont, the sense of caring within Jules’s community, and the relationship between the two girls and their father make for a book that is both raw and hopeful and one that readers won’t soon forget. Through a dual narrative—one from Jules, the other from the “kennen” fox kit—the authors convey an understanding that grief is a journey and that a person can, even after terrible loss, feel the warm sun, smile once again, and make wishes for the future. VERDICT-Highly recommended for all middle grade collections.–Kathy Kirchoefer, Henderson County Public Library, NC
— School Library Journal *STARRED*
A fox kit born with adeep spiritual connection to a human story in a rural Vermont community has aspecial bond with 11-year-old Jules. Jules' sister, Sylvie, just a year older,longs for their mother, who died suddenly. Sylvie is a runner, while Jules'focus is on the intricacies of rocks and stone. When, in the opening chapters,impulsive Sylvie makes a dash to throw a wishing rock into the Slip, atreacherous place where the river drops under the ground, it is Jules whodiscovers that Sylvie tripped on a tree root, sliding in March snow to herdeath. Meanwhile, Jules' kind friend Sam longs to see a live catamount, a rareeastern cougar—and aches for his war-veteran brother, who mourns Zeke, whodidn't return from Afghanistan. Jules and Sylvie's speculative question gameasks what happens after death: "Maybe you turn into wind. / Maybe you turninto stars." Magical elements—a legend about brothers who chanced the Slipfor a girl's love; an elusive grotto; spirit animals sent to complete a taskunfinished for a human—all confer transcendent dimensions on the story. Appeltand McGhee's rich, polished narrative invites the reader to experience theworld both as Jules and as the fox. Intriguing as a story of connection to theanimal world and, for perceptive readers, filled with solace. (Fantasy. 9-13)
— Kirkus Reviews
Eleven-year-oldJules and her older sister, Sylvie, know that the Slip, the dangerous placewhere the river near their house flows into a deep cavern, has been declaredoff limits by their father; the warning, however, has often gone unheeded asthe two girls go there to throw “wish” stones. One morning Sylvie leaves Julesbehind and runs to the Slip to make a quick wish, and she doesn’t return.Jules’ time is then separated into Before Sylvie and After Sylvie as shegrieves for her sister and tries to hold off the guilt she feels about Sylvie’sdeath. As Jules wanders, lost, through her days, she often catches sight of ared fox that she feels a connection to; in fact, the fox is a Kennen, a spiritmeant to help humans. The book keenly conveys Jules’ pain at the loss of Sylvieand realistically complements it with absolute fury at her sister’s actions.The chapters that focus on the fox are warmly narrated, and the fox itself isgently curious and then genuinely empathetic toward Jules. A subplot involvingthe return of the older brother of Jules best friend from Afghanistan showsthat grief manifests in many ways, a message that is underlined by the howl ofthe fox’s family after she sacrifices herself for Jules. This is a quietexploration of what it is to continue life after the death of a loved one.
— Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
Father says eleven-year-old Jules is as strong as a rock,but Jules doesn’t feel as strong as her sister, Sylvie, who can run like the wind. Jules is jealous of Sylvie, until the day Sylvie disappears and everyone assumes she fell into the slip, the treacherous gorge in the Whippoorwill River. What Jules doesn’t know is that when Sylvie died, a Kennen fox was born as her spirit guide. As Jules faces life after Sylvie, she ventures out into the forbidden woods where she bonds with the fox, who guides her to the location of a mystical grotto and reveals the headband Sylvie wore the day she died, helping Jules find closure. Although etched with sadness, the novel artfully blends the worlds of animals and humans through the alternating voices of the fox and Jule. It is bound to leave readers full of hope. This title will appeal to tweens who have experienced a loss, as well as teachers and librarians familiar with the work of this award-winning author team.
— School Library Connection
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Sisters eleven-year-oldJules and twelve-year-old Sylvie are very close but very different. While Jules loves her rock collection,Sylvie's "burning wish" is to run faster. Their mother died when theywere very young, and the family still feels her absence. Their close-knit ruralVermont community is supportive and they see reflections of their own grief ina neighbor who has returned from serving in Afghanistan without his bestfriend. Then, Sylvie disappears, leavingJules and their dad to pick up the pieces. At the same time, a fox named Sennais born. Senna's story is interwoven with Jules's and they connect in asatisfying, though sad, conclusion.
This story has a lot of moving parts and would not work inthe hands of lesser authors; however, Appelt and McGhee weave a magicallylyrical tale marked by sparse, simple prose. Jules and Sylvie's best friend,Sam, could use a bigger part in the story. His obsession with finding acatamount is the seed out of which a companion novel could grow. This is aquiet novel with a quiet cover. Giventhe authors and the quality of the writing, it seems likely that there will berenewed attention when awards season comes around. Not all young readers willbe drawn to it, but for fans of Katherine Patterson's Bridge to Terabithia (Thomas Crowell,1977), this will be anappealing and magical read.—Kristin Anderson.