I have been hesitating to write about this book for months, since before I started this blog. Let me tell you why, before I start talking about the book itself.
I love it. The very moment I saw the ARC at (you guessed it) my favourite children’s book shop I knew I needed it. I didn’t just want it– it was talking to me, it told me I needed it. I immediately placed a pre-order for it, and when I came out in November and I finally got to read it from cover to cover I have to admit that I actually slept with it under my pillow the way I used to with fairy tales when I was a kid, hoping they would get into my dreams. That’s how beautiful this book is. And that’s why I hesitated to write: Where do I start? What can I say to get across its loveliness? Am I good enough to get it across?
Then I read it with the Changeling this morning and I realized I loved it in my way and she loved it in hers, and, while the book might be one step over from absolute perfection in its own way, no one’s looking to me for the perfect blog post. The book didn’t need me to be perfect. All I want to do here is share, as best I can, how truly I, Deborah, love this book. And I’ll screw my courage to the sticking place and do my best, with all my uncertainties.
One uncertainty is that I don’t know is whether it’s a children’s book. Judge for yourself.
I do know that The Fox and the Star, written and illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith, is a work of art. I mean that absolutely literally. I said that with Madlenka’s Dog I stopped trying to protect it from the Changeling. With this book, I keep it out of her reach, and when I read it with her I explain that this is one of the books I truly love and would like her to be careful about touching. (Let me brag for a second: She’s such a good listener! OK, I’m finished bragging now.) The cover is beautifully designed. I want the endpapers as wallpaper. The illustrations are exquisite, each one lovely enough to be a print, or William Morris-style fabric (or more wallpaper– I love wallpaper). The words, beautifully chosen in and of themselves, are integrated into the illustrations so that they make a seamless fabric. Sometimes they’re set into the page like a tablet poised in the branches of a tree, sometimes each word is woven into the thorns of the forest, but, always, the words and the pictures suit each other.
And then there’s the story. Or, perhaps, parable would be a better word.
I remember discussing with a professor of mine what the modern-day equivalent of the parable would be. We agreed that children’s stories often work as parables: they’re stories in themselves, but often convey greater themes. The Tale of Peter Rabbit would be a classic example. He suggested Katie and the Smallest Bear as an even simpler and more exemplary option. I think this book pares both the story and the themes and message so closely to the core elements that it makes an excellent example of a parable.
The story is about Fox and Star, and Fox’s love for Star. The two of them, and all the others Fox encounters on his journey, are what they are, and need no other names. Fox loves Star, his only friend, a friend he relies on for a soft glow of light at night in his dense, dark forest, where he walks only a little way from his den so that Star can light his path. But one night he wakes and Star is gone. (If you were reading the book, your eyes would fill with tears here.) First, he huddles in his den, dreaming of Star’s return, lonely and scared, but finally beetles come seeking his den and Fox wakes up and eats. Then he goes searching for Star. He asks all those he meets about Star: the thorns, the rabbits, and the trees, but either they don’t know, won’t answer, or can’t hear him. Finally, he comes to a lovely clearing and calls out his question. Leaves fall, settling on the ground to tell him: “Look up beyond your ears.” And when he looks up he sees a sky full of stars, and knows one of them, somewhere, is a star that once was his. (If you were reading the book, not my measly summary, you’d be choking up right now.) And Fox walks on through the forest.
Part of what scared me about writing up this book is that this is where you should say, “And this book’s message is X and teaches you Y and it’s so universal!” I can’t do that to this book. It does have broad, universal messages and themes and they’re beautiful. If I put them into words it would diminish them. To me, that’s why this is a parable: there are things that plain, sensible words can’t say. There are things that you can only experience and feel through the interwoven, perfectly balanced mixture of words and images in this book.
I will tell you that this book came out while I was in a deep and miserable depression. Frankly, it sucked. It was horrible. This was the first book I bought for myself rather than because I thought my daughter or husband would love it in a long, long time. (As it turns out, of course, we all love it.) The Fox’s lonely and courageous journey through a dense, dark forest, looking for beloved starlight spoke to me and got me to sleep at night and up in the morning. It got me thinking about working in children’s books, too, because who wouldn’t love a world of books that can encompass everything from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a book like this? I will always love and be grateful to this book, and to the Fox’s courage.
As for my daughter? She loves the Fox. She loves watching the beetles crawl across the page, she loves the rabbits, she loves the leaves, but, most of all, she loves watching the Fox on his journey. And when we come to the last page she bounces and beams: “He found the Star! He found the Star!” “Yes,” I answer, “he found so, so many stars!”
One day, I know, she’ll learn for herself why the Star had to go away so Fox could find so many stars– and what finding so many stars means to her, in her own words, and her own experience. And maybe she’ll be able to tell me about her journey, and I can tell her mine.
Look, I don’t say this for every book, but: Go buy this one. And let yourself cry when you read it, if you need to. It’s too beautiful not to move you, and you’ll grow for it. Walk through the forest, look up beyond your ears, and find all the stars. Then tell me about it.