Reviews /

White Fox in the Forest

Authored by Chen Jiatong
Illustrated by Viola Wang
Published by Chicken House

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White Fox in the Forest is the second, and concluding, book about White Fox by Chen Jiatong. In essence, this is an adventure story about an unlikely band of animal companions continuing on their mysterious quest to become human. However, there is a lot more, including allegorical and metaphorical complexities, to be unpacked in the concluding part of this narrative.

When reading, it is important to be aware that this story tackles some difficult issues head-on and teachers will need to execute professional judgement when making decisions about the appropriateness for a pupil or class. There are some lengthy descriptions of fights to the death, and the topic of death itself is explored at length and in-depth. 

Although this is a story about animals, they are not magical or special, they are in fact very normal and very fallible characters, which are easy to empathise with due to Chen’s thoughtful writing. They are not a Tolkienian Fellowship or a band of heroic Avengers which the reader can only dream of aspiring to: Chen’s heroes suffer grievous losses, are quick to anger, struggle to find solutions and enjoy simple pleasures. This makes them all the more relatable and ensures the Aristotelian message of ‘the whole being greater than the sum of its parts’, is recognised and considered by the reader with the significance it deserves. You cannot come away from this text without considering your role and the part you play in bettering the world around you.

As I read, I was reminded of the ’80s and ’90’s coming of age films I grew up with, such as The Goonies. Each of the companions represents a different attribute required for ultimate success on the quest: Dilah, a white fox, is faith; Ankle, a weasel, is wisdom; and Little Bean, a rabbit, is kindness. They are joined by Tyrone, a panda, representing love, and Egg, a seal, personifying courage. It was this area that got me excited as a classroom teacher; there is an opportunity to teach empathy, teamwork and finding your place in the very current context of environmentalism. Using White Fox in this way makes an abstract topic accessible and relatable to UKS2 pupils and with skilled direction would lead to high-quality book talk.

The natural world is the silent character in this story; although I feel describing it as silent does Chen’s writing a disservice. The world the five friends traverse may not speak, but it is as alive and changing as the band themselves. It offers them safety and security by ‘gently rousing them…with sweet, drawn-out songs’, then shows fear for them as ‘lightning flashe(s) and thunder boom(s)’, and also grieves alongside them as ‘leaves…turn the brightest red’. Chen crafts nature into a living entity, making this a valuable resource to introduce personification to LKS2 and to stretch UKS2 writers into exploring the realms of pathetic fallacy.

Like the coming-of-age stories and films I grew up with, this story is all about finding your place and allowing a journey to transform you. What I enjoyed most about this book is that it continues beyond this, asking us to consider how we can use this personal transformation to better the world we have inherited.