Review of the Day: Hattie and the Fox
I've an oldie but goodie on the table for you today. I'm sure you all already own this book, have it memorized by heart, and recite it every holiday season for your gathered family. Nonetheless, it deserves more attention, don't you think? Eh, voila!
Being a children's librarian is all about trial and error. You think a book is going to make for a good readaloud during your storytime, but then you find that it's either too long or too boring or the wrong age level for your group or any other millions of reasons why you've failed to capture your audience's attention. This situation happens with even the best of authors. It does not happen, however, with Mem Fox. Now obviously you shouldn't go about reading aloud EVERY Mem Fox title you come across. I love, "Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge" but it really is more of a one-on-one book. However, when it comes to books like "Hattie and the Fox" you are in safe safe hands. I was shocked when I discovered that it was not considered one of Fox's best-known book (curse you, Koala Lou!). It should be though. A great use of repetition and a title that knows how to ratchet up the tension, "Hattie and the Fox" takes the old predator v. prey model and gives it a bovine twist.
One day Hattie, the resident big black hen, happens to look up and see a long reddish nose with a black tip sitting in a nearby bush. "Goodness gracious me! I can see a nose in the bushes!". You might think this kind of statement might provoke a bit of interest in the other farm animals, but it apparently does no such thing. The goose says "Good grief!", the pig says, "Well, well!", the sheep says, "Who cares?", the horse says, "So what?", and the particularly blasé cow says, "What next?". Well I'll tell you what next. Next Hattie happens to notice that the nose has been joined by two eyes in the bushes. Again the other animals say their customary responses. Even if Hattie notices a nose, two eyes and two ears in the bushes (she's always careful to say just how many body parts she sees), no one is paying much attention. About the time she gets to, "a nose, two eyes, two ears, a body, four legs, and a tail" she puts two and two together (no more, as needed) and screams out, "It's a fox! It's a fox!". The other animals apparently didn't see this coming and are provoked into a panic. All the other animals, that is, except the cow who lets loose a rousing "MOO!" that scares the fox away. The last two pages show utterly silent animals standing stock still as the text tells us, "And they were all so surprised that none of them said anything for a very long time".
A good readaloud picture book isn't afraid of a little repetition. What's particularly nice about "Hattie and the Fox" is that the tension not only escalates but takes on a kind of familiar series of steps. Mem Fox is doing something rather similar to that old Little Red Riding Hood storytelling technique of, "But Grandma, what big EYES you have" and drawing it out. The contrast between Hattie (who lives in spite of the fact that she doesn't recognize a fox until she sees the tip of his bushy bushy tail), the nonplussed animals, and the fox with dinner on his mind is reflected beautifully in the text. I like to think that any illustrator could have pulled off a nice book with this excellent writing, but Patricia Mullins style using a collage technique of tissue paper and conte crayon works particularly well. Firstly, the colors are marvelous. From the goose's bright blue eye to the red crest atop Hattie's head, the pictures burst with life. I've always suspected that books of repetition like this one must be particularly difficult to make images for. If the words are the same on every other two-page spread, how do you go about distinguishing between them? For Mulins's part, she likes to change her perspective, where the animals actually are, and how they are set up. She even drops in little details like the flies that buzz around the animals' heads. The dark eyebrowed fox for his part is definitely malicious. The only question that remains is why does he wait so long to pounce?
I guess I definitely fell in love with the book when I got to the last two pages. There stand six shell-shocked animals. You can't put a price on the horse's expression. Mister "So what?", has finally been put in his place. The pig also looks particularly appalled but the cow seems almost content. She was, after all their savior. So really, "Hattie and the Fox" has it all. Great reading aloud potential, beautiful illustrations, and a plot kids of many ages can get behind. Rather good stuff.