Reviews /

Leila and the Blue Fox

Authored by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Illustrated by Tom de Freston
Published by Hachette Children's Group

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Two fragile worlds running in parallel. Leila travelling to Norway to reunite with her mother while Miso, a blue fox, journeys across a continent.

The opening chapter sees Leila nervously negotiating passport control ‘Look them in the eyes, but don’t stare, don’t blink too much, smile, not with teeth, with your eyes, but don’t squint.‘ and Miso, unaware of the miles she has to cover, ‘is full of needs she has no names for, and follows them like a magnet toward its true North.’

This middle grade novel, the second collaboration between Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston, is set in the present and explores global issues such as climate change, the environment and migration in its different forms. We see the perils of crossing borders as a human, fleeing imminent danger yet often met with new, hostile environments: ‘Leila lets her breath out slowly. It’s exhausting being braced all the time, against the staring, the occasional comments.’ While animal migration is often driven by hunger and the need for a mate, Miso ignores man-made boundaries in order to survive: ‘She learns fast because that is how you must, to live […] She grows her world, collecting scents, searching out new safety.’

This beautifully narrated Arctic adventure immerses you in the landscape and the contrast in the perspectives of Leila and Miso adds so much visceral depth to the novel. We witness Leila’s sense of awe and wonder at seeing a whale: ‘Leila widens her eyes, trying to drink it in as snorts of water issue from the hole in its head. It is close enough to see the texture of its skin, pitted with scars, almost geological.’  This description contrasts the cerebral with the instinctive through Miso’s perspective on the very next page: ‘She’s reached the land of bears. She smells them in every step – fighting males; learning cubs.’

Similar to the protagonist in Millwood Hargrave and Freston’s first book, Julia and the Shark, Leila has a complex relationship with her mother. Both mothers are scientists absorbed in their work and both daughters struggle to connect to them. Leila is, however, frustrated as she feels she is not her mother’s priority, her work is. Yet ‘all the anger fades for a moment and there is only this: it feels so good to be held by her mother.’ The reader then witnesses a healing journey across the Arctic continent – healing for all involved – and the themes of not giving up hope and finding love become clear.

Every primary and secondary school library should have multiple copies of the MG or YA work by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. With Leila and the Blue Fox and the earlier Julia and the Shark, she and Freston have created something quite unique for middle grade readers. Novels which explore global issues but intertwine them with a very human story and powerful storytelling which leave the reader informed and empowered.