It is often assumed that the responsibility of a children’s author is to sugar-coat reality, whilst teaching the reader to deal with everyday problems and re-assuring them with a pleasant conclusion to the story that good always prevails in the face of conflict. However, close inspection of many children’s classics reveals that this is not always the case, and that more often than not a deep and serious message lies beneath the façade of ‘simple’ picture books, even those aimed at the very young.
Especially when it comes to our natural world, stories of furry little animals tend to be recognised as sweet and idealistic, rather than frightening and reflective of the harsh reality that is nature. That is not to say that unrealistic children’s stories hold any less value than the more harshly eye-opening ones, but it is also true that some of the most well-known books possess a somewhat sinister edge.
The stories of Beatrix Potter, for instance, most often end happily, yet simultaneously contain darker themes regarding survival in a human-centric landscape (The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies is a great example, as the offspring of Benjamin Bunny are kidnapped by Farmer McGregor who plans to have his wife cook them for dinner! Although a humourous story, it is also quite dark in its implications of death and the human-animal relationship).
Margaret Wild’s Fox is one such children’s book that does not sugar-coat or provide a necessarily happy conclusion for the reader. The illustrations of Ron Brooks are remarkable in their depiction of the unforgiving Australian landscape, and seamlessly accompany Wild’s rather menacing tale of the friendship between “Dog” and “Magpie”, and the intrusive “Fox” who destroys their relationship. The text itself is integrated amongst Brooks’ illustrations, making the read more interactive as you twist and turn the book while the story progresses.
It is described as a tale about “friendship, loyalty, risk and betrayal”, although I believe that the animal-based theme of the story allows for a more ecological interpretation. For one, it is suggested through the naturalistic images that Dog is in fact a dingo. Fox’s intrusion into Dog and Magpie’s friendship is therefore an insightful representation of ‘invasive’ versus ‘native’, and the imbalance an ecosystem experiences when a foreign species is introduced. Dog’s unusual friendship with Magpie is the result of a broken wing and Dog’s missing eye – Dog carries Magpie on his back because she can no longer fly, and she directs Dog due to his poor vision. Fox’s intrusion begins when he too wants to be friends with Magpie, and although she at first rejects this offer, Magpie eventually abandons Dog because Fox is a faster runner.
Magpie is subsequently removed from her habitat – the bush – and is then discarded in the desert by Fox, who appears to be punishing her for ignoring his friendship originally. This is poignantly demonstrated by his remark “Now you and Dog will know what it is like to be truly alone.” Again, this statement implies something more than friendship and betrayal, suggesting that Fox understands what it is to be alone, and that it is only fair that other animals experience the same. This raises the question of whether the fox as an invasive species deserves to be demonised because of its foreign presence in the Australian environment, and in many ways encourages us to pity Fox as he disappears into the desert, leaving Magpie alone to find her way back to Dog.
Overall, this story is rich in beautiful imagery and profound story-telling, utilising the rugged Australian landscape as a stage for this fascinating narrative that appeals to both children and adults. Whether intentional or not, both Wild and Brooks have created a story that reflects strongly on the reality of the Australian landscape and the dynamics of invasive and native species. The inclusion of Dog (or Dingo) also highlights whether the introduction of foxes to mainland Australia mirrors the possible introduction of the dingo by humans thousands of years ago. Will the fox eventually be considered a native, or will it always remain an outsider compared to other, more recently assimilated species? Although many might consider these topics above the heads of younger readers, I think people would be surprised at how much children learn from picture books such as these, and that sugar-coating an issue is often not the best way to teach or raise awareness.
Well-deserving of the plethora of literary awards it has obtained (including the prestigious Children’s Book Council of Australia Picture Book of the Year), Fox is both an exceptional and haunting tale of loyalty, difference, and life in the Australian environment. I highly recommend it to those interested in animal stories that are both imaginative and reflective of the true severity of nature.