Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City by Christian McKay Heidicker
Three young fox kits, romping through their first heavy snow, come upon a gravely injured older fox in the woods. The wounded fox asks for their help, and the kits are understandably reluctant. Then the stranger fox says that he needs to tell them a story first. A scary story, but not of predators and dangers of the forest. The City and a nearby farm have equally horrifying dangers for foxes.
The Stranger’s story begins at a fox farm, where cousins O-370 and R-211 (all of the foxes at the farm have numbers and letters for names) retell the adventures of Mia and Uly, told in the first book in this series, Chris Heidicker’s Newbery Honor book Scary Stories for Young Foxes. The foxes living on the farm have taken the wrong message from these stories, though: they believe that life in the wild is terrible and dangerous, and that they are incredibly lucky to live in cages at the Farm where, when they are old enough, the farmer will take them to the nearby White Barn, where they will enjoy a peaceful eternal life of eating peaches and centipedes with all of their friends and relatives who’ve gone to the Barn before them.
But O-370 wants a little more adventure from life, so he breaks out of his cage one day and begins to explore. When he sneaks into the Barn, a terrible sight awaits him. It is a fox farm, after all! Unable to convince R-211 and his other friends to join his escape, O-372 runs away to the nearby City, where he meets up with a found family, a prickly female fox called Dusty who has taken three young orphaned foxes. They’re extremely reluctant to let a odd-looking and strange-acting farm fox join their family — life in the City and suburbs is already dangerous enough for foxes without adding the farm-raised O-372, who is ignorant of all dangers, to the mix. But Oleo, as he is soon called by them (a spin on his O-372 name tag read upside-down), eventually manages to earn his way into their group. Together they’ll face a fearsome veterinary hospital, guns and poison, and all the other dangers of humans and their civilizations.
Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The City (2021) is a solid sequel to the original Scary Stories for Young Foxes. While the style is very similar to the first book, Heidicker’s shifting of the setting from the forest to human haunts brings a freshness to The City, with a whole new set of dangers. The characters are different from the first book as well, since the events of the second book occur many years later, but there are enough links and common themes to tie the two stories together. I appreciated the twist of Mia and Uly’s wild adventures being turned into exactly the wrong sort of message by the farm foxes, but one that comforts them in their captivity. It’s a cautionary example for readers as well as foxes.
As in the first book, the scary stories told in The City evoke various classic horror tropes. The veterinarian’s hospital scenes have a classic horror movie feel, and I may be wrong, but I thought I caught a reference to Arsenic and Old Lace in the tale of two older ladies who seem friendly and harmless on the surface. There’s also a dark humor in the fox farmer’s sweet young daughter named Fern, as in Charlotte’s Web, who has qualms about the slaughtering of animals on her family’s farm. These echoes of classic films and books will probably fly over the heads of younger readers, but add a richness to the tales that will be appreciated by older readers.
There are harrowing dangers, horrors and deaths to be dealt with in both Scary Stories for Young Foxes books, but the ultimate message of the value of individual freedom, even with all of its risks, is an affirming one. Heidicker’s evocative writing and Junyi Wu’s eerie illustrations make these books a pleasure for readers who are up for scary stories with a bite to them.