Sunday September 30, 2012
A book hug
TOTS TO TEENS BY DAPHNE LEE
I LOVE that moment in the 2009 animated film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, when Mr Fox sits down to breakfast and tears into his French toast with the single-minded ferocity of the wild beast that he is. Fortunately, there’s no blood to mess up his perfectly-pressed white shirt and tie.
Filmmaker Wes Anderson’s Mr Fox is a newspaper columnist. He’s George Clooney, with a magnificent tail and Meryl Streep for a wife. Dahl’s Fox is less developed as a character – he doesn’t do much else other than steal chickens and dig. I actually prefer the movie to the book, which is almost never the case with me. Then again, I am not as in love with Dahl as many Malaysian readers seem to be. Furthermore, Tony Ross’ illustrations in the Puffin edition I own are not very engaging. I quite like how he depicts the three farmers, but Mr Fox and his family seem to me rather devoid of character.
Anderson’s Fox is elegant, witty, and utterly charming. I like this portrayal because I am partial to foxes and don’t like the shady way they tend to be presented in children’s literature and even in mythology and popular culture.
The joke that is the conclusion of the picture book Foxly’s Feast depends, in part, on the reader being aware of the fox’s dodgy reputation. At the very least, you need to know that foxes are omnivores whose diet includes small mammals, insects, fish and eggs. I don’t quite buy the idea of a vegetarian fox, but it makes a change from the usual chicken thief, ruffian and bounder we encounter in stories.
Foxly’s Feast is a wordless book and the story probably wouldn’t work as well, or at all, with text. The symbol of the knife-and-fork translates quite simply as “hunger” and “food” and “meal” and the intention of storyteller/illustrator Owen Davey is that the reader should misunderstand Foxly’s desires. The cover itself, and then the title page, show the fox reading a recipe book, and the first spread sets the scene for what is to come: Foxly is one hungry fox – just what sort of feast is he planning? Foxly visits a series of animals, each kind probably deliberately chosen because they tend to be the sort that foxes are known to find delicious. Is he inviting them for dinner, or rather, to be his dinner?
The close-up of Foxly, with lolling tongue and pointy incisors, fork and knife poised, is pure genius. What carnage is about to follow? Well, this is a picture book for children, so I don’t think anyone expects blood and spilled guts. As I said, earlier, Foxly is a vegetarian and what he’s planned is an idyllic picnic (although that fish looks like it’s experiencing slow-death-by-carrot, and the sheep have quite menacing smiles!).
The final spread is of Foxly, sprawling and replete. I don’t know what other foxes would say about the contents of his stomach, though. Is this book a misguided attempt to mislead or placate children who can’t cope with the fact that pretty bunnies get torn to shreds by equally pretty foxes? Or is it just a sweet, little fantasy that we should refrain from reading too much into?
I’m taking the latter route, and will just enjoy the lovely, restful, muted earth-tones of the illustrations, the expressive faces of the animals, the flowing, swinging lines and simple shapes that add to the book’s sense of warmth and inclusiveness.
Foxly’s Feast is really a hug in the form of a book. It’s comforting and will make you smile. Davey has said in various interviews that his next book will be about goats. I can’t wait.
> Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Send e-mails to the above address and check out her blog at daphne.blogs.com/books.