MTYT: The Secret Life of the Red Fox

Throughout January, we discuss the representation of foxes in recently published children’s books. This became our focus as we served on literature award committees and noticed so many picturebooks about foxes piqued our interest. We wondered if this representation or characterization of the fox changed from the traditional portrayals of foxes. This is our fourth book to give our take on this month. We started with The Fox and the Wild, then looked at The Fox Wish and discussed Pandora last week. This week we give our takes on The Secret Life of the Red Fox by Laurence Pringle and Kate Garchinsky.

The Secret Life of the Red Fox

DESIREE: The Secret Life of the Red Fox is a nonfiction book that depicts these animals as clever, mysterious and beautiful. Despite being nonfiction, the book has a main character, an adult red fox, named Vixen. Readers are invited to follow her and to watch her hunt, sleep and care for her kits. The illustrations aid the story with depictions of Vixen and her mate rubbing noses, running playfully, and caring for their young. However, the author makes it clear that the reader is being treated to a rare look into the fox’s life, “To most people, her life is a secret.” What do you think about the way this book is written, with multiple invitations to observe and to learn?

SUSAN: I am always on the hunt for non-fiction written by superb story-tellers, that is authors who are convinced there is a narrative behind all the facts, lists and numbers. For that reason I loved reading this book. The publisher, through the the use of fonts and various text features, positions this as a non-fiction text, but the author weaves the information in a story about Vixen, a young female red fox–the best of both kinds of literature! Interspersed in the narrative are so many facts about where red foxes live, hunting methods, their omnivorous diet and habits of raising their young.

Italicizing words from the glossary is helpful, pointing readers to more information if the context is not sufficient to determine the meaning of a word.

DESIREE: I agree. This book reminds me of the movie African Cats and the television show Meerkat Manor–both of which I love. The factual information alongside the humanizing of the foxes in this book ought to make for great conversations about stereotypes with children. The book serves as a great segue into discussions about how people, and foxes, are often not what we expect. What are your thoughts about the portrayal of a female fox versus the male fox we tend to read about in most picture books? Are there any stereotypes that you noticed in this book? How, if at all, did Vixen’s gender influence the way she is depicted?

SUSAN: I am fascinated by the choice of the name Vixen, the name for a female fox but also a word describing a spiteful, quarrelsome, shrewish or ill-tempered woman. In a figurative sense it can mean a sexually attractive woman. The female fox described in Pringle’s book fits the figurative meaning. She is energetic, lithe and makes noises to attract her mate. But I wanted to know more, so researched cultural images of the fox. I discovered that in Western folklore the fox is portrayed as cunning and a trickster. But in Asian folklore foxes trick people by disguising themselves as attractive female humans. They can also be sacred or mythical creatures who bring prosperity or ruin.

I discovered a few other cultural connections that made interpreting the word “vixen” more layered. There was a all-female rock band in the ’80s and ’90s called the Vixen. The band logo included the head of a fox. Vixen is also the name of a DC Comics superhero who is a model by day but becomes a superhero with the ability to mimic animal cries.

DESIREE: That is interesting, Susan. It seems to me that the name Vixen has feminist undertones. I connect this idea to the scene in the book where Vixen the fox escapes a pack of dogs, “Vixen looks out over part of the territory that she knows so well. She sees no dogs. They gave up long ago, outrun and outsmarted.” This brings me back to the question about the portrayal of female versus male foxes–I still wonder if there is a difference.

Title: The Secret Life of the Red Fox
Author: Laurence Pringle
Illustrator: Kate Garchinsky
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press
ISBN: 9781629792606
Date Published: March 7, 2017

This is the fourth installment of January’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the whole conversation, start with The Fox and the Wild, then The Fox Wish, and Pandora. Check back next Wednesday for the final installment.

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