Review: The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night

Autumn is a snug time; a time for pleasant reminiscence. If you need a classic picture book to go with your cocoa, The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night by Peter Spier is just the thing.

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The words of this story belong to an American folk song, here lovingly brought to life with Spier’s gorgeous illustrations. A fox sets out one evening by the light of a hunter’s moon to gather food for his family. He courses through prosperous farmland, past startled cows and stooks of corn, until he reaches the outskirts of a small town. He snatches a duck and a goose from the henhouse, and makes off with his haul amid a fabulous flurry of feathers; but not before arousing the suspicions of the old lady, who sends her hapless husband John after the thief. The reader cannot help but hope that the quick fox will return safely to his den with a feast for his adorable family.

My children love Peter Spier’s creations. The illustrations are packed with detail, and we can page through and hunt for interesting scenarios without even reading the words. In these scenes the fox sneaks through a mid-nineteenth-century New England countryside that is vibrant with the hues of autumn and rich with historical accuracies. However the number of illustrations produced in color depends on the edition you have.

This book was originally published in 1961, with the illustrations alternating page by page between black-and-white drawings and full-color watercolors. The drawings allowed a reader’s imagination to focus on the intricacies of each depiction, while the paintings were awash in the hues of autumn and created a sense of instant warmth. In 2013 Spier released an updated edition in which all of the original drawings are reprised in watercolor. The drawings are the same, but now they are all presented in that beloved riot of color. Both versions are excellent, and the tone and quality of the full-color work completed by the author fifty years later is every bit as charming as the original.

At the end of the story the full words are printed along with the music. If you are not familiar with the tune, this version is fun to sing with children. The lyrics do not precisely match up with those printed in the book, but that’s part of the fun with folk music. The words are simple and catchy so children can sing along. It would be a rollicking start to a family game night, harvest celebration, or children’s dance party.

This is an altogether enjoyable book to share with your family, although it might need to be explained to little listeners that foxes do in fact eat ducks and geese (alas, that wonderfully expressive goose does not survive the tale). In an unassuming way, it encourages contentment with the simple necessities of a warm home, a loving family, and a good meal. May your own hearth be a joyful place this season.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Frog Went A-Courtin’ by John Langstaff and Feodor Rojankovsky

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Review: Sophie’s Squash

The season is changing now almost as fast as a toddler’s mood. Enjoy a bit of both with the adorable Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller and Anne Wilsdorf.

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Precocious Sophie picks out a butternut squash for supper at the farmers’ market, but by evening the huggable fruit has become her best friend. Resisting her parents’ attempts to eat her new pal, Sophie names the squash Bernice and takes her everywhere. The two enjoy a friendship despite her parents’ warnings that a squash can’t last forever; until finally Sophie herself has to admit that her time with the squishy Bernice is coming to an end. But acting on a bit of advice from a farmer at the market, Sophie chooses a selfless resolution that even surprises her with the, ahem, fruit it ultimately bears.

Cheery pictures illustrate the sweet family themes in this story. Aside from the obvious – and totally understandable – scenario of a preschooler connecting with an unexpected object, we also glimpse a family sharing in wholesome activities and facing dilemmas in a healthy way. Both parents take Sophie to the market and the library, and discuss with her options for the inevitable end of her bosom buddy. Their suggestions as they allow her to reach the conclusion herself are evidence of a thoughtful family atmosphere (cooking the squash together, or donating it to a food pantry). Sophie’s eventual solution reflects the loving care that she receives herself.

It’s also very jolly to see what fun a child can have with an inanimate friend: tea parties and role-playing and tumbling down hills. In a world where kids are increasingly “wired”, Sophie is refreshingly unplugged. Her playful adoration of her vegetative chum spans the seasons; and when she decides to give Bernice what a squash really needs, she makes a joyful discovery about the circle of life.

This gently humorous book is a fun seasonal story-time choice for preschoolers, but readers from toddlers up through the early grades can enjoy the sweet adventures of Sophie and her squash.

Note: In the follow-up book Sophie’s Squash Goes To School our imaginative heroine has difficulty making friends at school, but learns a valuable lesson from a new friend – and this one is human.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Apple Doll by Elisa Kleven (This lovely out-of-print story also has instructions for making your own dried-apple doll.)

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Review: The Kissing Hand

Excitement, trepidation, relief; the annual return to school is a time of mixed feelings for students and parents alike. When one of my children is feeling anxious about leaving home for a new experience, I like to revisit The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn and illustrated by Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak.

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Little Chester Raccoon is afraid of his first night at the forest school, and begs to stay home with his mother. He yearns for his freedom and familiar pastimes. Mrs. Raccoon lovingly reassures him, but when Chester remains doubtful she piques his interest with an old family secret: The Kissing Hand.

Showing him how it works, Mrs. Raccoon plants a kiss on the palm of Chester’s hand and wraps his fingers around the kiss to keep it safe. She tells him that whenever he needs a little love from home he can open his hand and press that kiss to his cheek, and know that his mother loves him. Chester is thrilled and confidently goes off to school; but not before returning the gift and offering his mother a Kissing Hand as well.

If this book comes close to being a little too sentimental, it can surely be forgiven for its gentle treatment of very natural emotions. Chester’s misgivings and his mother’s wisdom are universally recognizable, and the tender moment when she watches him scamper away to new things will echo in any mother’s memory. The final illustration of all the young animals at school is a triumph.

With vibrant, glowing illustrations and a speedy resolution, The Kissing Hand is a comforting choice for toddlers through the early grades. The tradition itself is easily introduced to the morning ritual if you so desire, while the theme of unconditional affection will also support children through other difficult separations; long-distance grandparents or a parent traveling for work or deployment, for example. Any family member can become a part of this cherished routine.

This short, simple story is just the right thing, not only for uncertain young scholars but for their parents as well. While parting can be hard and emotions tug the heart every which way, a story like this both affirms and calms those feelings into a sweet and meaningful family moment. If you’re feeling teary-eyed as the school bus rolls up, you might try a little Kissing Hand magic yourself.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd

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