Friendship, loyalty and belonging in Fox by Margaret Wild – a compare and contrast

Fox
It had to be this picture….

This post discusses some picture books with the shared themes of friendship, loyalty and belonging. I chose them to support Power of Reading’s idea of a ‘literature study’ in their unit for Fox

I would suggest using Sylvia and Bird by Catherine Rayner to introduce the concept of loyalty in a literary context. The stages of the relationship are very simple: ‘Sylvia was lonely’; ‘Bird and Sylvia became friends’; ‘Sylvia realised she didn’t need other dragons to be happy.’ The term ‘loyal’ is used explicitly in the very last sentence – ‘The best friend in the world was loving, loyal Bird’.

Sylvia and Bird

How does Bird prove her loyalty? – what is her loyalty worth? Bird seems to have everything she needs to be happy: she is building a nest when Sylvia comes upon her by chance, so she is presented as comfortable and established in her world. This is reinforced by the fact that she is surrounded by creatures that, in being the same as her, provide her with a sense of belonging. She also gets to ‘chit-chitter’ with these other birds, suggesting she has a good relationship with them, unlike Sylvia, who has no other dragons to belong with.

Bird is prepared to give this all up, however, for the sake of her friend, when she sees that she is ‘unhappy’.   We can surmise from this that Sylvia is Bird’s only close friend and that she values this friendship enough to do something – go to the moon – that puts her very life in danger. She does this without any guarantee that Sylvia will find what she is looking for on the moon and, in fact, is the one to suggest it. Her loyalty, in these ways, is presented as irreproachable.

The characters in Red Ted and the Lost Things  by Michael Rosen also come upon one another by chance.   Though they become friends by the end, it is not their friendship that frames the story, rather their differences in the face of adversity. Red Ted is an optimist, always on the look-out for practical solutions, while Crocodile is an unremitting pessimist who expresses his lack of faith in Red Ted at every turn. There are similarities between Dog and Red Ted on the one hand, and Magpie and Crocodile on the other.

Red Ted

When the cat appears, considerably larger than Red Ted and Crocodile, we suspect she may have evil intentions, but she turns out to be an amiable and sympathetic companion who temporarily complements rather than threatens the main relationship. This is in keeping with the very different tone of the book. For all these reasons, Red Ted and the Lost Things is useful for comparing with Fox, both as an ‘unlike’ as well as a ‘like’.

John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat by Jenny Wagner may have the most in common with ‘Fox’, in terms of the behaviour of the characters and the dynamic between them. Ron Brooks is the illustrator of both books. As in ‘Fox’, the motivation of the antagonist (John Brown) revolves around the emotion of jealousy in respect of a key relationship, here the one with his owner Rose. Another similarity is the sense of exclusivity in the relationship – we know of no other creatures that could interfere in Dog’s symbiotic friendship with Magpie, and we are told in the first line of John Brown that, Rose’s husband having died, she now lives with her dog. The relationships – between Rose and John Brown and Dog and Magpie – are presented as ones that should have the strength to endure, the first being built on the bonds formed by longevity, the second by the bond of mutual need.

John Brown

Here’s a difference: we know when Fox appears that he will test those bonds, whereas it is the bonds themselves that are the source of John Brown’s predicament. If he were not bound so closely in affection to his owner he might be able to tolerate her interest in the midnight cat; if he were not bound so closely in affection to Rose he might not have allowed the cat in. It is Fox’s rootlessness, his being unbound, that makes him the far more dangerous character. Magpie warns Dog about Fox: “He belongs nowhere. He loves no-one.” I’ve always interpreted the ‘scream of triumph or despair’ at the end of the book as Fox’s cry to the effect, ‘I could have belonged. I could have been a part of that family. But I could not help myself; I had to destroy.’ Remember that it is Sylvia the dragon’s need to belong, to see her dragon-ness mirrored in other dragons, that causes her to put her friendship with Bird in jeopardy; it is Fox’s fox-ness that means that he will only find satisfaction in acting in a way that guarantees his continued isolation.

All of this children can understand. They can relate to John Brown’s mean response to the cat – they know the selfishness and jealousy in themselves and in other people. When he’s ‘thinking’, they know that he’s thinking about his behaviour and how it’s hurting someone he loves. They can also understand Rose’s similarly selfish behaviour: having endlessly promised John Brown that, “We are all right. Just the two of us, you and me,” she then betrays that promise by taking to her bed ‘All day and for ever’. And when John Brown asks her if the midnight cat will make her better, she says, “Oh yes! That’s just what I want.” Which can easily be seen as rather hurtful.

This joint culpability is not so obvious in ‘Fox’, but it is there. If Dog had heeded Magpie’s warnings, and resisted the canine tendency to love everything, Fox might not have been able to lure Magpie away. But there is no question that Magpie’s betrayal goes far beyond anything Dog’s folly deserves. The Shakespearean level of Fox’s perfidy in bringing about this betrayal is what raises ‘Fox’ head and shoulders above other picture books for me, and what makes it so valuable as a teaching tool. I have used it countless times for upper Key Stage 2 interventions with both low and high attaining groups. I feel that the power of its theme, and the way it is represented so vividly in both words and pictures, reaches right into a person, adult or child, and demands a response from them – which it is then the job of the teacher to help fashion into writing.

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Session 17 of the Power of Reading unit for ‘Fox’ suggests that you: “Invite the children to conduct a literature study to consider other stories that feature friendships that are forged in challenging contexts or have a distinctive quality.” (I love the use of the word ‘invite’ here …..) It suggests tabulating the study and I’ve adapted the PoR table below. For the full, editable table in Word, click here: Fox literature study table.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend comparing four texts at a time as a whole class but it’s something that could perhaps be done in groups.

 

  Sylvia & Bird Red Ted John Brown Fox
What year group would this story be best for? Year 1-2 Year 2-3 Year 3-4 Year 5-6
Is the story about the relationship between two or three characters? Two – Sylvia and Bird Two – Ted and Croc Three – John Brown, the Midnight Cat and Rose Three – Dog, Bird and Fox
In what ways are the characters similar? They can fly They are both lost They want to be part of a caring family They carry wounds, internal as well as external
In what ways are they different? They need different environments

Sylvia is alone in being a dragon

Ted is an optimist and a problem-solver, Croc is a pessimist who does not take action Rose wants to broaden the family to include the midnight cat, John Brown does not Dog is innocent, simple, generous; Fox is the opposite; Magpie is caught between them
What challenges do they face? / catalyst Sylvia wants more than Bird can give Finding Ted’s owner’s (Stevie’s) home The arrival of the midnight cat How to live with their wounds
How do the characters behave in the face of the challenge? Bird proves her loyalty; Sylvia understands the value of friendship Croc always wants to give up; Ted persists Rose weakens and becomes sick; John Brown realises his selfishness Dog seeks partnership; Magpie betrays Dog; Fox decides to ruin the family rather than join it
What is the climax of the challenge? Sylvia flies too high and puts Bird’s life in danger Ted could go home without Croc John Brown will not allow the midnight cat into the relationship Fox lures Magpie away from Dog
How do they overcome the challenge? Sylvia realises that she can not find a better friend than Bird, even if she is not a dragon Thanks to Ted’s optimism and problem-solving, they find Stevie’s home John Brown loves Rose enough to overcome his hostility towards the midnight cat We don’t know if they do
Does their friendship last? yes yes Yes Only if Magpie makes it back to the cave and Dog forgives her
Memorable moments?        
Memorable quotes?        

 

A final thought: the Melrose and Croc books (I think there are five of them) by Emma Chichester Clark are the sweetest, most gentle depictions of happy friendship that I know in children’s literature. Perhaps something to have in the book corner if you can get hold of them.

‘The Lost Happy Endings’ by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy – Ideas and Resources

1

I taught in Reception yesterday – writing a four-word sentence, one idea, all words decodable using satpni, repetition using a writing frame…. And at the other end of the spectrum is this – writing in a literary style, using adverbials to add nuance.  I can’t say that I have a preference for teaching writing in a particular phase, but I enjoy the sense that the one approach (in Reception) is building to the other.  It seems distant when working with Reception children, but from the beginning, even when writing short, repetitive sentences with a controlled vocabulary, we can give them a sense of what a sentence is, the conventions for showing how they start and finish, and how they, the writer, can control them.

Writing in this distinctly literary register is of course not the only outcome we are looking for.  (And by ‘we’ I mean professionals who want to teach children how to write well, not some ever-changing end of primary-age outcome).  We want children to be confident in all registers.  The narrative prose of, say, Malorie Blackman, as well as the different kinds of non-fiction writing.  But I do think there is a particular value in exposure to and writing of literary texts.  And I believe, having seen proof of it over years of intervention with struggling pupils, that every child can write them.

Texts written in this style provide access to a world that only exists when words are put together according to its rules.  It’s unfortunate that the current iteration of the curriculum insists on the teaching of ‘fronted adverbials’ and in doing so has created mockery and resistance within the profession to something that is useful and important.

For this resource, I’ve selected four sentences from the text that include adverbials starting with an adjective (or adjectives, or modified adjectives).  I’ve structured it so that the position of the adverbial can be either fronted, embedded or after the main idea – children can see it in all three positions and decide which works best.

The resource continues with a selection of sentences with adverbials starting with adjectives, again in the three different positions.  They are all taken from texts written in a more or less literary style.  As ever, the resource is fully-editable so that you can pick and change as you wish.

I’ve drawn on texts some of which are out of print.  But if you are lucky enough to work in an institution that will let you get hold of them, or you want to buy them for yourself, I would urge you to do so – they have endless uses as well as being works of art.

The Power of Reading unit for this text has a (very) long list of perhaps nebulously connected books that they suggest you draw upon.  One of them is another book by Carol Ann Duffy, ‘The Tear Thief’.  It reminds me of ‘Jinnie Ghost’ by Jane Ray (illustrator of ‘The Lost Happy Endings’) as well as ‘The Lost Happy Endings’ itself.  They all have mysterious, magical interventions at children’s bedtime.  Jub and the Tear Thief carry sacks with almost-numinous contents.  The Tear Thief and Jinnie Ghost are not human, and they travel in and out of houses along an urban street visiting different children.  The moon plays a central part in ‘The Tear Thief’ and is integral to the appearance of ‘The Lost Happy Endings’ and ‘Jinnie Ghost’.

However, ‘The Tear Thief’ lacks the narrative and stylistic cohesion of ‘The Lost Happy Endings’ and ‘Jinnie Ghost’.  The writing style is not consistent.  I think Carol Ann Duffy was aiming for more of a story-teller register, sounding closer to speech, but she frequently lapses into a literary style along the way.  The way the story is structured is also problematic: somehow we don’t know if the Tear Thief has good or bad intentions at the beginning; and when the mother says to her son, ‘Stop crying or the Tear Thief will hear you’, we don’t know if the thief is some kind of bogeyman or not.  We don’t find out soon enough why she is collecting the children’s tears.  In ‘Jinnie Ghost’, in contrast, we discover very soon that the ghost is easing the difficulties that children encounter in their dreams, and this is continued consistently until the end in a lyrical but still relatively-sparse style.

Then we have a very weak problem – a little girl has lost her dog – when none was really needed.  It would have worked better if the focus had been on the way that the Tear Thief uses the children’s tears to create the moon’s beauty.  On the last page there is an attempt to pull these elements together – the moonlight, the found dog, a baby crying – all in a full-blown literary style.  The beautiful writing does not compensate for the stylistic and narrative problems.  I wonder if a Year 6 class could notice this?

East of the Sun West of the Moon – illustrations by P J Lynch

Mysterious Traveller image
From ‘Mysterious Traveller’

The resource here focuses on the work of the illustrator P J Lynch.  It starts with a couple of links to websites with information about him, but the bulk of the presentation is a comparison of his illustrations in two books – East of the Sun West of the Moon and Mysterious Traveller.  For those following the Power of Reading unit, this relates to Sessions 1, 4 and 6.  For anyone else, the resources is, as ever, fully-editable to suit your needs.

The comparison is between illustrations for stories with two contrasting settings, the first book being set in Norway, the second in Mali.  I’ve started the exercise of comparison with slides showing the geographical location of these two countries as well as their climates.  P J Lynch does a great job conveying the two contrasting climates in his beautiful and impressive landscapes.

The presentation then proceeds with a variety of ways of comparing the illustrations in the two books.  The first is a comparison of photos of the landscapes of the two countries (yellow backgrounds for Mali, blue for Norway) which can be closely related to the stories.  The next two slides (peach-coloured) provide a starting-point for a comparison of the style and effect of the illustrations in the two books.  The last two slides (pale green) give suggestions for comparing in terms of both similarities and differences.

Favourite Fairy Tales cover

(Another book illustrated by P J Lynch, published in 1985 – found in a charity shop while I was working on this post…)

A non-fairy tale heroine: Queen Anahit of The Golden Bracelet

Queen Anahid

The resource here is for using with ‘East of the Sun West of the Moon’.  It is intended for a Year 6 class, though a comparison with an un-alike text is not explicitly suggested in the Power of Reading unit.  The story the resource is based on, ‘The Golden Bracelet’, has similarities with the Norwegian story but it is mostly the differences that underline and draw out the fairy tale features.

It is a US picture book set in ancient Armenia and based on a story written down in the 19th century by Ghazaros Aghayan, an Armenian writer.  I was trying to think of Lost Husband stories and kept coming back to this one.  The thing is, though there is a lost husband, the story as told here is not a fairy tale.  It can be found in an Aghayan collection called ‘Fables and Fairy Tales’ and it tells more like a fable in this version by David Kherdian.

The story has been animated (in Armenian) recently, and from the clips online it seems that there is a lot more magic in it than in the Kherdian version.  However, I’m going with the Kherdian book as a down-to-earth comparison with ‘East of the Sun West of the Moon’.

Anahit animation
A still from a 2014 animation of The Golden Bracelet story, ‘Anahit’

 

The picture at the top of this post illustrates very well the difference between Anahit and the lassie of ‘East of the Sun West of the Moon’: Anahit is a queen with practical tools at her disposal.  The point of ‘The Golden Bracelet’ is that Anahit values practical action above all, and it is this that saves the day.

There are lots of different ways to approach a compare/contrast exercise.  Click here for mine, which sets the magical against the realistic.

P.S.  Anahit gets the ‘Rejected Princesses’ ( or Women too Awesome, Awful, or Offbeat for Kids’ Movies) treatment here, with the sub-heading ‘The Queen Who Made the King Get a Job’.  It also has a link to the entire animated film.