A Game of Fox and Squirrels, by Jenn Reese

A Game of Fox and Squirrels, by Jenn Reese (middle grade, Henry Holt, April 14, 2020), is a beautiful, gripping, tear-jerking story of two girls taken in by their aunts when their father's abuse becomes impossible to keep secret any longer.

Sam and her big sister Caitlin have grown up used to their father's mood swings and their mother's complicity in his abuse (which is both mental and not life-threateningly physical).  But when he breaks Caitlin's arm, they must leave their home in California to go stay with their father's sister and her wife in a small, remote house in Oregon.  Neither girl is happy about this, and Sam is sure that they'll be going home soon.

Her new room is cluttered with her aunt's stuff, and rummaging through it she finds an old game,  A Game of Fox and Squirrels, with beautiful cards showing the animals.  The squirrels must store food in order to survive the winter, but must always be wary of the fox.  Sometimes the fox is charming, but sometimes he is hunting...and went that happens the squirrels are in danger. "Stay vigilant, brave squirrels" warns the game.

Sam and Caitlin and their aunts all face a difficult period of adjustment.  The girls have been trained to know that mistakes like clumsiness, or wrong words or wrong tones of voice, bring anger like lightning out of clear sky, and it takes a while for them to realize that this isn't going to happen any more.  For their aunt, it brings back the trauma of her own childhood, when the same thing happened to her and her brother.  For Caitlin, there is the huge relief from being the big sister whose job it is to keep the grown-ups from getting angry.  Sam, though, is still sure they will be going home soon, to their parents, where they belong....

And then she meets, in real life (making this a fantasy story), the squirrels and the fox, and the fox, so charming, so handsome, makes a bargain with her.  If she can pass his tests and prove that she trusts him, she'll win the magical golden acorn, and her wish will be granted.  But the fox, of course, cannot be trusted.

From the rules of the game, bits of which are interspersed in the story:

To earn the Fox's favor, you must offer him cards from your hand, even though you've been saving those cards for scoring.  Even though those cards represent the nuts the will help you survive winter. 

The Fox demands unwavering loyalty.  Do whatever you must to prove it.

Just as in the game, the Fox's tests demand more and more from Sam, and require her to do things she knows are wrong and hurtful.  But she has to go home!

Happily, the story ends in a place of healing and hope for the two aunts and the girls, with the fox thwarted.  But goodness, what an emotionally charged ride it is to get that point!  Perhaps if I hadn't, myself, had a mercurial father (when he was charming there was no one more entertaining, and we always knew he loved us, but often he was angry, though not anywhere near level of the father in this story), it would have hit me less hard, but as it was I was tearful at many points.

I loved the details of the game and its cards so much I want to quote all the little bits of instruction that start each chapter. The fantasy of the game being real is beautifully balanced by what's happening in reality.  It's not just Sam's pov story that's moving.  The two aunts, who make so much effort to help the two girls feel safe and at home, were wonderful grownups, and the brave older sister, who reminded me so much of my own older sister, made me cry when she was finally able to let go of having to be responsible for keeping her sister safe from parental anger.  I loved the squirrels from the game who kept popping up to talk to Sam in the woods.  And I loved the ending, when Sam frees herself from the thrall of the fox.

Basically, I loved the book!


  1. Adding this one to my TBR! It hadn't really caught my interest before, but the way you've described it has piqued my interest. Particularly the involvement of the aunts and the mix of fantasy and real world challenges.

  2. This sounds extraordinary. What an achievement if it can take up such a topic and weave it into an imaginative story in a healing way.

  3. Oh, my, this sounds like a lovely story. I'm putting this on my TBR list. Thanks for the post.

  4. Not going to lie; the fox creeped me out rather a lot!


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