‘Fox’ by Margaret Wild and ‘Cow’ by Malachy Doyle – teaching time adverbials

Fox when sentence cropped

Subordinate clauses relating to time are the easiest to teach, so they should probably be the starting point for any work on fronted adverbials. It is the least literary of all the types of subordination, being one that children actually use in speech – you will hear them recount things from their own lives as well as from stories using ‘when’: ‘When we got there, we had to…’ or ‘When Goldilocks saw the bears she…’

I can grade the picture books I use for teaching writing according to a sort of ‘subordination hierarchy’, or to put it another way, how literary the language is. Having said this, books that come higher up the hierarchy can still include lower level subordination, and ‘Fox’ is one of these. It includes six types of subordination (see Mog examples): those starting using a preposition, those starting using ‘with’, one starting with an adjective, a couple using an ‘-ing’ verb and one with a simile starting with ‘like’. The majority of the subordination in the writing is to do with time, and it is done particularly well.

These are the sentences in the order that they appear in the book:

Magpie drags her body into the shadow of the rocks, until she feels herself melting into blackness.

After the rains, when saplings are springing up everywhere, a fox comes into the bush …

In the evenings, when the air is creamy with blossom, Dog and Magpie relax at the mouth of the cave …

That night, when Dog is asleep, Fox whispers to Magpie, “I can run faster than Dog.”

But later that day, as Dog runs through the scrub with Magpie on his back, she thinks, “This is nothing like flying!”

And when at dawn Fox whispers to her for the third time, she whispers back, “I am ready.”

While Dog sleeps, Magpie and Fox streak past Coolibah trees …

[NB: Most, but not all of these adverbials are fronted.]


Margaret Wild uses time subordination in two ways: to situate events precisely in time, and to situate events in relation to each other. The time relationship can be ‘this happened at the same time as this happened’ or ‘this happened immediately after the first thing happened’. Often Wild does both – situating events in time and in relation to each other – at the same time.

If we focus on just those sentences of the type ‘this time happened at the same time as this happened’, and break them into chunks of main idea and subordination, we get:


Position in time – time of day, time of year More detail about that time Main idea
1.       After the rains,


when saplings are springing up everywhere, a fox comes into the bush…
2.       In the evenings,


when the air is creamy with blossom, Dog and Magpie relax at the mouth of the cave …
3.       That night, when Dog is asleep, Fox whispers to Magpie, “I can run faster than Dog.”
4.       But later that day, as Dog runs through the scrub with Magpie on his back *, she thinks, “This is nothing like flying!”
5.       And when at dawn Fox whispers to her for the third time, (‘at dawn’ adds more detail, but it is not separated into a separate clause with commas) she whispers back, “I am ready.”

[NB: ‘as’ is used in the same way as ‘when’ *]


If using these as examples, I would point out that either column works on its own – i.e. column one plus main idea, or column two plus main idea. Then guide children towards an understanding of how the second column adds greater detail and so improves the quality of the sentence.  (Click here for an editable version of this table.)

Sentences 3 and 4 are easier than the others. They follow the structure: time of day plus subordinating event plus main event.

The other sentences require greater knowledge as well as skill. We need to make explicit the knowledge that Margaret Wild is drawing on when adding this type of detail: she has an awareness of the time of day and the cycle of fire/re-growth in the bush, and how different things happen at different times in the day (or year). Sometime she expresses these in terms of how they can be experienced on a sensory level – e.g. ‘when the air is creamy with blossom’.

This last sentence is writing of the highest standard. It draws not just on great skill but on experience – experience that children do not have. They might be able to make reference to the smell of flowers in a piece of writing, but we would not expect them to be able to specify that it is blossom. And to describe the smell as ‘creamy’ – there are plenty of adults who couldn’t do that. And then, to use the word creamy in a phrase ‘the air is creamy with blossom’, requires an even greater level of skill.

Yet we can begin to teach primary age children how to do this. We can ask them to notice their own sense impressions and to include them in their writing. And children being children, what they can do with this will be limited by their own skill and knowledge. Here is where great children’s literature steps in to provide models of what can be done.

One of the best picture books in this respect is ‘Cow’ (another singular animal…) by Malachy Doyle. The writing and the illustrations take the reader through a day in the life of a cow, making reference to the time of day/year, the sense impressions of the cow and the actions of the cow. Unusually, it is written mostly in the second person – ‘you’. It also describes the actions of the humans on the farm.

I would suggest using ideas from ‘Cow’ to combine into sentences with an element of time subordination, as follows. First I’ll start with a table of ideas, ordered as they are written (a row relates to a double-page spread).

Time of day/year Sense impressions What cow (referred to as ‘you’) is doing
On a hot summer’s day (feeling) hot Grazing in the field
Early morning.

Dawn is breaking.

(sound) the first birds sing

(sound) the farmer whistling

Morning (feeling) sodden grass

(feeling) thick coat wet with morning dew

You rise from the grass

You amble to the gate

  (sight) sheep, pigs, gander, farmhouse  
  (feeling) your hooves click on the floor of the yard You enter the stall
  (feeling) gently the farmer cleans your udder You bend to eat

Milk is sucked out

  (sight) house, coop You wander back to the field
    You tear the grass and chew the cud, rolling your mouth from side to side. Pushing the food with your thick, wet tongue, over and over for hours.
Slowly the morning passes    
The day warms up (feeling) the day warms up



(feeling) a long drink of the cool, clear water.



Your breath comes hot and heavy from your broad wet nose.

You wander down to the river and take a long drink

The midday sun blazes (feeling) in the shade

(feeling) flies from your face

You rest, you close your deep, dark, eyes. Your ears twitch, you swish (your) long busy tail
The hot afternoon drags on    
Later (feeling) your milk-full udder aching You wait by the gate,
  (feeling) the cool parlour Lowing deeply, pressing forward
The sun has gone

The long, hot day draws to an end

  You’re back in the field
(illustration shows the cow under a night sky)   You graze, you chew, and you rest


You can then use the ideas, colour-coded or not (for colour-coded editable table, click here), to combine into sentences using time adverbs, i.e: when, as; while; until; after. Use the structures as in the ‘Fox’ text as a guide (so not all the adverbials will be fronted).


Magpie drags her body into the shadow of the rocks, until she feels herself melting into blackness.

You graze in the field until the first birds start to sing and the farmer comes whistling down the track.


After the rains, when saplings are springing up everywhere, a fox comes into the bush …

After the dawn breaks, when the grass is sodden with morning dew, you rise and amble to the gate.


In the evenings, when the air is creamy with blossom, Dog and Magpie relax at the mouth of the cave …

In the morning, when the morning dew lies wet on your thick coat, you rise from the grass and amble to the gate.

In the afternoon, while the hot day drags on, your udder fills and starts to ache.


That night, when Dog is asleep, Fox whispers to Magpie, “I can run faster than Dog.”

At midday, while the sun blazes, you sit in the shade and twitch your ears.


But later that day, as Dog runs through the scrub with Magpie on his back, she thinks, “This is nothing like flying!”

Later, as you wait by the gate, your full udder aches to be milked.


And when at dawn Fox whispers to her for the third time, she whispers back, “I am ready.”

And when in the evening the sky fills with stars, you graze, you chew and you rest.


While Dog sleeps, Magpie and Fox streak past Coolibah trees …

When the sun has gone and the long, hot day draws to an end, you are back in the field, tearing the grass and chewing the cud.


Some of these sentences (for colour-coded version, click colour coded Cow sentences) work better than others (e.g. ‘After the dawn breaks’ doesn’t sound quite right), and there are plenty of other possibilities. Notice how sense impressions can be turned into main ideas. Certainly children will come up with combinations that don’t really work but there is a lot of value in discussing with them why it is that they don’t work, also in showing how to make small changes so that they do.



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

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.


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.