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’.
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.
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.
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.
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|
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.