A Game of Fox & Squirrels by Jenn Reese
11-year-old Samantha and her big sister have just arrived at their Aunt Vicky’s farm in Oregon. Samantha is not happy that the girls have been taken away from their parents and she wants to go home, even though her dad sometimes has a pretty bad temper. Aunt Vicky and her wife are clearly not prepared to take the girls in, but they do their best to make the sisters feel at home.
Aunt Vicky gives Samantha a game called The Game of Fox & Squirrels and one night, when Samantha is playing with it, the fox from the game visits her room. He’s charming and offers to give Samantha anything she wants if she can find the Golden Acorn. Samantha, who just wants to be back with her family in Los Angeles, is nervous about the challenge, but decides it’s the only way to get out of her current situation.
As Samantha attempts to complete her quest, various dangers arise and her interactions with the fox and his henchmen (henchanimals?) become more sinister. Though fearful, Samantha takes inspiration from the fantasy novels she loves. She knows that heroes like Bilbo Baggins were afraid while on their quests – being afraid and doing it anyway is what made them courageous.
Samantha, a clever, extremely imaginative, shy, and sensitive girl, is endearing. She hates the spotlight and is content to let her big sister have it. She’s easy to relate to, especially for readers who share her love of fantasy novels. As we get to know Samantha, it begins to become clear that she suffers from trauma and, perhaps, an anxiety disorder. Jenn Reese increases the tension and mystery by doling out this information gradually.
Eventually, it also becomes clear that A Game of Fox & Squirrels, which is filled with symbolism, is an allegory. Reese deals with difficult issues in a sensitive manner. This is a moving, even distressing, story that’s beautifully written. The audio version I listened to is also wonderful. It’s narrated by Sarah Franco and published by Macmillan Young Listeners. A Game of Fox & Squirrels is a finalist for the Nebula (Andre Norton) Award for best Young Adult Fiction. It is a worthy competitor.