Review of the Day: Red Fox At McCloskey's Farm
Red Fox At McCloskey's Farm, written by Brian J. Heinz, illustrated by Chris Sheban. Creative Editions. $17.95.
So, Poetry Friday, we meet again. You’ve bested me time and time again with your sudden startling appearance near the end of my work week. THIS time, however, I’ve an advantage. I have gone the entire week already believing it to be Friday. This gave me ample time to locate a rhyming picture book that I’d enjoy reviewing at the precise moment that you popped out of nowhere. Howzaboutzem apples, eh?
You’re a gigantic publisher firmly lodged in the center of New York City, you have access to the greatest illustrators of children’s books on the planet. Year after year such publishers lazily dip their hand into the heart of Brooklyn, pluck out a few worthy souls, slap their work onto some blank pages, and voila! Instant hit. Your teeny tiny publishers laboring away in middle America have fewer advantages. Talent is there, but it takes more work to find it. Big bookstore chains won’t always display your wares. Even everyday marketing can be a bother. So it is with great pride that I introduce to you a book that has received a minimum of buzz this year, in spite of being wholly deserving of it. Here we can see foxes and hounds collide with too-wary chickens and underwear-clad farmers in this tale of a single adorable fox’s attempt to grab himself some chow.
Red Fox wakes up and has a single thought in his mind. He’s hungry and there are tasty chickens by the bucketload over at Farmer McCloskey’s farm. All seems well at the start, but the fox doesn’t necessarily count on a lean and careful Hound Dog to be present, guarding the flock. Suddenly there’s a ruckus and McCloskey, just about to turn in for the night, is up and running. Or rather, up and tripping since he can’t seem to go a foot without falling over a rocking chair or into the pig sty. The fox, meanwhile, is nearly trapped by both farmer and canine, but manages to leap a difficult fence and escape into the forest unharmed. As usual, however, it can’t help but dream the very next night, “of chickens in the pen, At Old McCloskey’s Farm ... Again.” Told entirely in rhyme with beautiful illustrations and full two-page pull-out spreads, Heinz and Sheban crank up the action and let it go with great storytelling skill and aplomb.
Mr. Heinz did not have to make this book rhyme, of course. In fact, when most authors decide that they want to create a rhyming picture book, they tend to screw it up royally. Either the sentences won’t scan correctly or the words sound cute and trite. We are fortunate indeed then that Mr. Heinz has a firm grasp on the matter at hand. Listen to one page’s tale, “Veiled in clouds, the moon hangs pale / Fox licks his chops, he flicks his tail / And strikes out on familiar trails / Of logs, and streams, and wall of shale.” Forgive me if this sounds obvious, but no lazy author is going to include a “wall of shale” in their picture book. Just as effective is the story itself. It may sound as if nothing much happens, since Fox doesn’t actually eat so much as an egg in his travels, but kids will find themselves simultaneously rooting for and against the furry red critter. You want Fox to both succeed and fail at the same time, and Heinz is willing to satisfy this need. There is one moment, I should mention, that doesn't quite work in the context of the tale, though. Between McCloskey on his back in a pigpen one moment and then hurling rocks at the fox not a sentence later, it's difficult to understand why the author didn't put a gap between the two actions. It's an abrupt change of pace that rankles slightly with the storytelling. Fortunately the author has Chris Sheban to help out with some of the fancy footwork here.
Sheban’s style is not too different from that of fellow illustrator Leonid Gore. Of course, while Gore uses his dreamlike style to illustrate horrific and fantasy-like tales of devils, skulls, ghouls, and dreams, Sheban takes a different path. He’s not afraid to illustrate the occasional Charlie Bone cover, but you’re just as likely to find wide-eyed baseball playing chickens and dizzying views of Santa Claus in that artist's repertoire. Chances are that you’ve seen Sheban’s work time and time again and just never took a moment out of your day to appreciate his style. Well good news, eager citizens. Here’s a book to take some time with. There is, for example, a memorable image of the fox carefully entering the chicken coop, a single paw curled up in anticipation, as the chickens beat a hasty retreat out of the coop’s screen door. One chicken, however, is attempting to slide by the fox as it looks the other way. Its making a concentrated effort not to give away its presence to the predator standing not three inches away. Trust Sheban to add some extra tension where none is immediately apparent. It’s interesting to me that Sheban chose to make the fox as cute and cuddly as he did considering that the story could have swung either way. Obviously the child reader is not going to WANT to see one of those bug-eyed chickens hanging limp out of the fox’s mouth, but at the same time it’s hard not to root for any creature this adorable.
The idea of making some of the illustrations in this book pull-out spreads was an interesting one. I’m not entirely certain whether or not it helps or hinders the tale. Maybe both. Certain kids love it when they can interact with their picture books by doing something that moves the action along. Pulling open an extra page has a bit of a thrill to it, each and every time it happens. Then again, library copies of this book are doomed to rip, tear, bend, and crush as busy little hands stuff the now-opened pages into unyielding crevices.
If you’re hankering for a fox-outfoxed storytime, consider pairing this book with “Rosie’s Walk” by Pat Hutchins or Keiko Kasza’s, “My Lucky Day”, depending on the age of your audience. The advantage of “Red Fox At McCloskey’s Farm” is that it will work beautifully as a readaloud. The pull-out spreads will be easily seen from a distance. The fun story, mentions of underwear (works every time), and eye-catching pictures, to say nothing of the rhyme and scan, guarantee this to be a favorite of many. In a word, fun. A good "get" for Creative Editions.