The Power of a Burning Wish: Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee’s Maybe a Fox

Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee’s collaborative novel entwines the story of one girl’s grief with that of a fox with a rare but important destiny.

Maybe a Fox. By Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee. Mar. 2016. 272p. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, $16.99 (9781442482425). Gr. 4–7.

Maybe a Fox. By Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee. Mar. 2016. 272p. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, $16.99 (9781442482425). Gr. 4–7.

Among Jules and Sylvie Sherman’s dad’s Do Not rules is that they are never to go near the Slip, a dangerous point where the Whippoorwill River surges beneath the ground before reemerging downstream. However, this wild, watery place in the woods behind their Vermont home holds a particular allure: it is the perfect place to throw wish rocks. Jules, 11, is a rock hound who loves sorting her collection into “Sherman Galaxies” of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock, but wish rocks are a category unto themselves. These rocks are for writing a burning wish that might just come true when cast into the Slip. Sylvie, 12, is a runner whose burning wish is to run faster; but one morning when she doesn’t return from a last-minute dash to the Slip, Jules can only find a tree root poking out of the path, followed by a gash in the snow that ends at the river. And just like that, Sylvie is gone forever.

Elsewhere in the forest, a fox gives birth to three kits and knows that her little girl, Senna, is Kennenspiritually connected to another living creature. As Senna grows and learns “a thousand years of fox knowledge” from the smells and sounds around her, Jules and her father struggle to cope with Sylvie’s death, their grief compounded by the lingering loss of the girls’ mother a few years earlier. Jules runs through what-if and if-only scenarios that would have kept her sister alive, alternately feeling despair and anger over what has transpired. Her inability to control her emotions rings true, and readers will empathize with her desire to find her feet in a world “After Sylvie.”

Rules and rituals evolve to remember departed
loved ones, create order, and stay safe.

Despite the heavy nature of the story, it maintains a forward momentum and resists taking on a brooding atmosphere. This is due in part to the way the narrative shifts, drawing on different characters’ experiences with death. The girls’ friend Sam had a burning wish for his brother, Elk, to return safely from Afghanistan; though he did, Elk’s best friend did not, and Jules and Elk form a quiet camaraderie in their search for solace. Rules and rituals evolve to remember departed loved ones, create order, and stay safe: Jules sorts her rocks, and her dad devises more Do Nots.

Throughout, Jules chases the question “Where do you go when you die?” It’s a query she and Sylvie used to answer with the Maybe game, postulating, “Maybe you fly away like a bluebird,” or maybe you simply shrink until no one can see you. Once Sylvie dies, this question is joined by another: why did Sylvie want to run so fast? Jules’ sister had always kept this a secret, but both answers, as it turns out, are wrapped up in Senna.

Many readers will quickly guess the connection between Senna, Sylvie, and Jules, but the exact implications to the plot are not as easily discerned. Additionally, the concept of Kennen imparts another avenue for the authors to explore grief, offering a comforting spiritual explanation that is not tied to religion. While this may not resonate with everyone, the fantasy element inherent to Senna’s story helps keep the book’s serious aspects from overwhelming young readers.

Neither author is a stranger to writing poignant animal stories that tackle weighty themes, as Appelt proved in her Newbery Honor Book, The Underneath (2008), and McGhee showed in Firefly Hollow (2015). Together, they create a delicate world that effortlessly impresses itself upon the reader. It is a world where bad things can happen for no good reason, where catching sight of a fox means luck, where love transcends all boundaries, and maybe death doesn’t have to be an ending.

This review first appeared in the December 15, 2015, issue of Booklist.

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About the Author:

Julia Smith is an associate editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also trained in aerial acrobatics. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

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