Moral in a foxy fable

26th January 2001 at 00:00
FOX. By Margaret Wild. Illustrated by Ron Brooks. Cat's Whiskers pound;10.99 (hardback), pound;5.99 (paperback)

Jane Doonan considers a fictional approach to difficult emotional concepts What it's about

Fox is a compelling and seriously beautiful picture book, unstereotypical in every way. It's an allegorical tale of love, temptation, frailty, and pitiable malevolence, told without judgement. These themes, boundary-breaking for a picture book, are mapped in a manner fitting for a child to understand, ideally with sympathetic adult mediation. Given its potential to expand young minds and encourage the spirit of compassion, Fox is a rich resource for both English and RE.

Set in the Australian outback after a forest fire, one-eyed Dog rescues Magpie, who has a burnt wing. In a perfectly symbiotic relationship, she becomes his missing eye and he becomes her wings, as he runs carrying her upon his back. They are happy in the passing seasons. Enter Fox. He's maimed too, though not physically; this handsome animal cannot love and this makes him dangerous. Fox, smelling of rage and envy and loneliness, sets out to destroy what he is incapable of expressing, by separating the two good friends. Temptation and tests await Magpie before the story moves to a satisfying and moving conclusion.

Wild's text is spare, and the story, which has only three characters, proceeds chronologically. This structural simplicity allows for concentration on the narrative style, with its formal poetic prose. It is through the subtleties of language - the sentence structure, the immediacy evoked by the use of present tense, figures of speech, and narrative gaps and pauses, which Wild leaves for her readers to fill - that the moral complexity manifests itself.

Brook's artwork, in mixed media and collage, is as magnetic as the story it partners. The images are simple and stylised, and there is a strong play between the depth and surface of the media itself, with its layers of paint and paper, metaphorically mirroring both the underlying and the apparent motives in the action. Marks made by gouging, scratching and scraping, brush trails and flickering black lines, agitate the picture surface in patterns as complex as the feelings they express. The hues of the landscape signify the emotional tenor of the tale: scorched earth red, ochres, blazing orange, bark brown, and the green of new growth.

How to use it

Fox is a fine book for the literacy hour in Years 4 and 5, ad for active contemplation in any hour.

In Year 4

At text level, children learn how to identify moral issues in stories, and to discuss how characters deal with them.

At sentence level, as well as a range of punctuation devices (including the semicolon) the text displays the three structures for using inverted commas for direct speech, which could lead to children extending the text by composing a brief conversation between Dog and Magpie when she is finally reunited with him - the colour of the illustrated back endpaper implies that she will succeed.

At word level, beginning with examples in the text, there is the opportunity for work on compound nouns.

In Year 5

Fiction requirements include fables, and Fox may forge connections with Aesop, and the anthropomorphising of animals from Ancient Greece onwards. But Fox is no simple morality tale, and it is a worthwhile lesson in itself just to determine the reason why it is not.

At text level, it provides pupils with the opportunity to study how the three characters are presented, to refer to the text (and pictures) through dialogue, action and description (gaze, posture, position on the picture plane), and to examine the inter-relationships between the characters.

At sentence level, direct speech can be transformed into reported speech, and attention focused on how dialogue is set out.

At word level, there is scope for investigating the similes and metaphors used in the text, and for composing new ones.

In the Infants

Good picture books have points of entry across the age and ability range, and Fox has been used successfully with Year 2 pupils whose teacher wisely took the book very slowly, page by page. They were engrossed from the cover onwards. The pupils recognised the moral dimension in relation to trust, friendship, and betrayal although, understandably, they had no insight about Fox's motives. They relished the foxy colours and textural richness of the pictures, and interpreted the latter through the expressive qualities of the images.

At all three levels, activities arising from reading Fox might include: ldiscussing book language, using the wrap-around design of the cover, the typeface, dedication and text labels; story-mapping; the use of single-word character profiles; using descriptive words and the creation of words.

With thanks to Joyce Williams, and Westbury infant school, Wiltshire.Jane Doonan is a literacy consultant

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