An otherworldly fox is born to help eleven-year-old Jules, who is grieving over the death of her sister.
Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honoree, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award–winning, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the National Book Award finalist The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Maybe a Fox (with Alison McGhee), Keeper, and many picture books including Counting Crows and Max Attacks. She has two grown children and lives in College Station, Texas, with her husband. Visit her at KathiAppelt.com.
Alison McGhee is the New York Times bestselling author of Someday, as well as Dear Sister, Maybe a Fox, Firefly Hollow, Little Boy, So Many Days, Star Bright, A Very Brave Witch, 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.
*Starred Review* Among Jules and Sylvie Sherman's dad's Do Not rules is that they are never to go near the Slip, a dangerous point where the Whippoorwill River surges beneath the ground before reemerging downstream. However, this wild, watery place in the woods behind their Vermont home holds a particular allure: it is the perfect place to throw wish rocks. Jules, 11, is a rock hound who loves sorting her collection into "Sherman Galaxies" of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock, but wish rocks are a category unto 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, and 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. Copyright 2014 Booklist Reviews.
A fox kit born with a deep spiritual connection to a rural Vermont legend has a special 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, a treacherous place where the river drops under the ground, it is Jules who discovers that Sylvie tripped on a tree root, sliding in March snow to her death. Meanwhile, Jules' kind friend Sam longs to see a live catamount, a rare eastern cougar—and aches for his war-veteran brother, who mourns Zeke, who didn't return from Afghanistan. Jules and Sylvie's speculative question game asks what happens after death: "Maybe you turn into wind. / Maybe you turn into stars." Magical elements—a legend about brothers who chanced the Slip for a girl's love; an elusive grotto; spirit animals sent to co mplete a task unfinished for a human—all confer transcendent dimensions on the story. Appelt and McGhee's rich, polished narrative invites the reader to experience the world both as Jules and as the fox. Intriguing as a story of connection to the animal world and, for perceptive readers, filled with solace. (Fantasy. 9-13) Copyright Kirkus 2015 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Maybe a Fox
From under her covers, Jules Sherman listened for her sister, Sylvie, to walk out of their room. As soon as she did, Jules slipped out of bed and slammed the door behind her. She was still angry. Who did Sylvie think she was? The day before, Sylvie had once again left her at the bottom of the front porch steps and run into the woods, disappeared, her wavy red-brown hair swishing down her back, ignoring Jules’s pleas to wait up, for once just wait up.
Sylvie was always doing that. Taking off. So fast. Time after time, leaving Jules standing there. Alone.
Jules’s cheeks flushed with a bright blaze of anger. Here she was standing alone again, this time in the echo of the slammed bedroom door. The morning was still early. A gray dimness came in through their window, aided only by a thin beam from the hallway that slipped in under the door.
Even in the shallow light Jules could still see Sylvie’s favorite T-shirt, along with the sweater and jeans Sylvie planned to wear that day, all laid out on her sister’s bed. Jules hesitated, then grabbed the shirt, went straight to the windowsill and in one swift motion, swept all her rocks into the T-shirt, using it as a kind of basket. Ha! Sylvie would hate that. Her precious, precious T-shirt.
The shirt was thin and soft and smelled like cotton and coconut shampoo and Sylvie. Jules took a deep breath. Sylvie loved coconut shampoo. In fact, she loved anything that smelled like coconut—coconut ice cream, coconut candy, coconut candles, including the one Sam had given her for Christmas. Sylvie said coconut was her “signature scent.”
Jules wondered what her own signature scent was. One thing for sure, it wasn’t coconut.
She dumped the rocks onto her bed and then did the same thing with the rocks from her bookcase, the rocks on top of her dresser, and the rocks from the wooden box her dad had made her for Christmas. The rocks spilled across the mountains and valleys of her sheets and blanket. She tossed her pillow aside and scooped the rocks into the empty space left open by the missing pillow.
Jules pulled the tiny hand lens that she wore on a lanyard around her neck out from under her pajama top. Her dad had only recently given it to her. The lens was about the size of a quarter, and a bright LED light shone out from it.
“Every rock hound should have one,” Dad had told her.
The lens magnified everything by ten times. When Jules held it against the surface of the rocks, she could see the striations where the different elements had folded into one another, or the smooth, shiny edges where the rock had been either chiseled by a pick or broken apart by some bigger force, maybe a glacier, as if the rock had been rubbed smooth by thousands of tons of sliding ice.
Not for the first time, her small LED light felt like a miniature sun, shining down on her own constellation of rock planets. Her bed was the galaxy, the Sherman Galaxy, bounded only by sheets and a warm fleece blanket.
Now she could begin to sort the rocks. First into the three categories: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Then by size within each category. Then into vertical rows, horizontal rows, and circles. As she sorted and arranged, she felt herself growing calmer. She whispered their names aloud as she worked. “Marble. Slate. Schist. Quartzite. Sandstone. Flint. Dolomite.”
There was a fourth category of rocks too, one that didn’t have a scientific name. Wish rocks. Rocks for the river. These were rocks that she didn’t display. Instead, she kept them in an old striped sock that once belonged to Dad. It was tucked in the back of her and Sylvie’s closet, next to their shoes and boots.
Most of the wish rocks she had found herself, either by spotting them along the trail, or lately with the help of her special pick hammer, an Estwing E13P. It had taken her forever to save enough to buy the hammer, and even then it had to be special ordered by Mrs. Bowen at the Hobbston Hardware Store in town. Not only that, but Dad wouldn’t let her buy it without also buying a pair of safety goggles.
“You want to be safe, don’t you, Jules?” Sylvie had asked her. Of course she did, and besides, no true rock hound would be caught chipping away at rocks without a pair of safety goggles. Jules knew that. But it was hard to wait until she had enough money for both the hammer and the goggles. And then Sylvie did something surprising—she let Jules borrow the additional ten dollars so she wouldn’t have to wait any longer to order the hammer. Sylvie was always doing stuff like that.
Remembering the goggles made Jules feel a little less angry with Sylvie. But not completely. She was still sick of being left behind. She snapped the beam of light off and tucked the lens back under her shirt.
She concentrated on her rocks, the ones spread before her in neat rows on her bed, and reached for one of her very favorites from the entire collection. Her fingers first hesitated over the small chunk of dark green-black marble. Then she remembered that Sylvie had brought that one back for her from a school field trip to the Danby marble quarry. Marble, slate, and granite were the official state rocks of Vermont, where they lived. Jules loved that piece of marble, its cool smoothness. She loved to press it against her cheek.
But not this morning. She wouldn’t choose the marble today. Not when she was angry at Sylvie. Instead she chose the piece of blue-gray slate that she herself had found at the edge of the Whippoorwill River, the river that ran along the edge of their property. She pressed her fingertips against its sharp edge. This would be a good skipping rock. Not that she would ever dream of sending it away across the water, never to be seen again. There were rocks for the river and rocks for the Sherman Galaxy. This one was a keeper, a blue-gray slate planet.
Sylvie, outside the door. She never knocked with her hand, just her voice. Who did that? Right now Sylvie’s voice-knock bugged Jules as much as being left in the dust.
“I can’t. This is my room too, remember? And I have to get dressed.”
Oops. The T-shirt! Sylvie’s precious Flo-Jo T-shirt. Flo-Jo was Sylvie’s hero, Florence Griffith-Joyner. She held the record for the fastest women’s hundred-meter sprint in history, and Jules knew that Sylvie dreamed of beating that record. She also knew that was one of the reasons that Sylvie was always running. But knowing it didn’t make it any easier. Sometimes Jules felt like the only side she ever saw of Sylvie was her back, growing smaller and smaller as she shot down the track or the trail or wherever else she ran. Jules smoothed out the T-shirt as best she could and returned it to its spot on Sylvie’s bed. Sylvie always made her bed and laid out her clothes the second she got up. Unlike Jules, whose bed was always a mess. Especially messy when she did a major sorting of rocks. Like now.
“Knock-knock,” came Sylvie’s voice again. “Come on, Jules, let me in.”
“There’s no lock,” Jules called. “Duh.”
There had never been a lock on their door. Even though she was upset, Jules still had to admire that Sylvie hadn’t just barged right in the way she, Jules, might have done. The doorknob turned and there was Sylvie, tall and skinny in her pajamas. She got straight to the point.
“Why are you mad?”
“I’m not,” Jules lied.
Sylvie just pointed at the rocks laid out on Jules’s bed, a sure sign that Jules was trying to calm herself down.
“Come on. Tell me. I’m your one and only sister.”
“What? I am, aren’t I? Unless you’ve got a secret other sister somewhere?”
Sylvie sat down on Jules’s bed, careful not to disturb the rocks. Then she sidled her pointer finger bit by bit, like a snake, through the rumpled blankets toward Jules. She had been doing that ever since they were tiny, and it always made Jules laugh. Jules looked away so she wouldn’t start to soften.
Sylvie abandoned the finger-snake and instead picked up the one piece of obsidian in Jules’s collection. She hefted the small polished oval in her hand.
“I remember when Mom gave you this,” she said. “It was your fourth birthday. You were already crazy about rocks.” She rolled her eyes in a what-a-weird-little-kid-you-were kind of way. “Seriously, what four-year-old kid is a rock fiend?”
That was it! Jules snatched the obsidian from Sylvie’s hand. Once again, Sylvie had invoked Mom. Obsidian was caused by volcanoes, an eruption of steam and gas so furious that it melted the earth itself into this hard, shiny object. Right then, Jules felt hard and shiny.
“You and Dad,” she said. “You’re like a secret club.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When the two of you get going about Mom. How do you think it makes me feel?”
Sylvie looked puzzled. Jules kept going. “It’s like you remember everything about her!” Jules rubbed her thumb along the smooth surface of the obsidian. “But me? I hardly remember anything. All I see when I try to picture her is her hair, which is exactly like . . . like . . .”
She stopped talking and carefully placed the obsidian back on her bed, back into the vertical category of igneous rocks.
“Mine,” Sylvie finished the sentence. “The same color as mine. Is that what you were going to say?”
Jules nodded. Yes. That was what she was going to say.
What she wasn’t going to say: that no matter how hard she tried, her memories of their mom grew smaller and smaller, each one folding in on itself, so that not even her 10x magnifier could see them.