Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker
One chilly autumn night, seven fox kits beg their mother for a scary story, “[s]o scary our eyes fall out of our heads.” Don’t go to the Bog Cavern, she tells them, because the old storyteller lives there, and the tale she would tell them would be so scary it would put white in their tails. So naturally the seven kits scamper off through the woods to the Bog Cavern as soon as their mother is asleep, and beg the spooky-looking storyteller for a scary story.
“All scary stories have two sides,” the storyteller said. “Like the bright and dark of the moon. If you’re brave enough to listen and wise enough to stay to the end, the stories can shine a light on the good in the world.”
But, she warns, kits who lose heart and don’t stay until the end of the stories may lose all hope and be too frightened to ever leave their den again. Then she embarks on a series of eight tales. There’s a beloved teacher who turns into a gooey-eyed monster who attacks Mia and her brothers, the fox kits who adore her. There’s also Uly, a runt with a crippled forepaw and six cruel sisters who torment him … but they’re not as bad as the white-fanged Mr. Scratch. And more, including the underwater monster Golgathursh, a skin-stealing witch, and a creepy, crawling disembodied hand fox paw. The stories soon tie together to become one overall tale of the terrible — and occasionally good — adventures of Uly and Mia.
Scary Stories for Young Foxes (2019), a Newbery Honor book, is a little like a middle-grade version of Watership Down, except with foxes rather than rabbits, and a liberal dose of fox-type horror. Each of the stories in it riffs on a different classic horror trope. For example, the first story — one of the most horrific ones — is a type of zombie tale, in the form of foxes contracting rabies, turning into monsters, and stalking and killing other foxes. A sadistic fox father, with no patience or love for a crippled son, takes on the role of Dracula. Beatrix Potter assumes the role of a scary witch who captures wild animals, steals their essence by writing a story about them, and then kills and stuffs them. (According to Heidicker, Beatrix Potter really did do amateur taxidermy as part of her nature studies, but from the fox’s point of view, of course, it’s horrific.)
One of the main attractions of Scary Stories for Young Foxes is that, despite their close ties to time-honored horror tales and tropes, these stories are generally realistic. Each story revolves around a life-and-death situation that could actually happen to a young wild fox. Heidicker does take a few liberties with real life, though: rabies spreads between the foxes far more quickly than is natural, an alligator shows up in a part of England where it has no business being, and Beatrix Potter’s story here (aside from painting her as villainous, which is certain to offend some readers) diverges somewhat from her actual life history.
Scary Stories for Young Foxes is beautifully and evocatively told, with lovely and frequently creepy charcoal pencil illustrations by Junyi Wu. As the old storyteller said, there’s an affirmative message underlying the stories, but getting to the end is harrowing for both the fox kits and the reader. Foxes die. Baby foxes die. So it’s not for every reader, but for those who, like the bravest little fox kit, can stick it out, it’s a rewarding set of tales.