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Profile Image for Betsy.
Author 8 books2,826 followers
July 23, 2020
We’re all having a rough year. And by “we” I pretty much mean “the entire world” is having a rough year. Things are not good. To escape, many of us typically turn to books. Kids are the same way. Now as an adult, I’m a bit of a wimp. I like blithe, happy novels. Stories in which peril is present but toothless. Maybe that’s why I gravitate towards children’s books more than adult ones. Under normal circumstances they offer a bit of respite from the darker material out there. But as this is 2020 and the world is full of complexity and problems, it should be of little surprise that the children’s books I encounter reflect those same complications. I’ve always said that books for youth serve as a mirror for the great grand conversations going on in the world. And if there is one particular trend I’ve noticed in my middle grade novels, it is without a doubt physical abuse, usually by family members. From Fighting Words to Chirp to Prairie Lotus (to a lesser extent), it’s handled in a variety of different ways. Some books are almost explicit while others merely allude to past incidents. It’s almost unfair to mention A Game of Fox and Squirrels in the same breath as these other books, though. While those double down on getting the “real” part of “realistic fiction” just right, author Jenn Reese goes a different route. Hers is a psychological novel that flirts with magical realism. There are foxes in waistcoats and squirrels that betray or befriend depending on the circumstances. What happens, though, is that after you finish reading this novel, somehow it has ended up feeling even more real than those straight up realistic books. With Jenn Reese’s great narrative risks come even greater rewards.

Just a quick note that there are some mild spoilers on this review. Feel free to keep reading if you don't mind, but if you like surprises, best that you stop right here.

It’s not permanent. That’s what 11-year-old Samantha keeps telling herself. The fact that she and her older sister have been sent away from their parents in L.A. to go live with some aunt in Oregon? Temporary. Resistant to change, Sam is unprepared for her Aunt Vicky, and Vicky’s wife Hannah, to be so welcoming. Vicky even bestows upon Sam an old game called Fox & Squirrels. And it isn’t long before she sees it that Sam is visits by an actual waistcoated fox and his attendant squirrels for a dangerous game. If Sam succeeds in interpreting what the fox wants, she gets a single wish for anything she wants. And what Sam wants is for everything to go back to the way that it was. But as she plays the fox’s game, and gets to know her aunt better, Sam slowly begins to realize that sometimes what you want and what you need are very different. But that’s the thing about playing with a fox. Once the game starts, it doesn’t end until he gets what he wants.

My 9-year-old daughter still prefers that when I am reading a novel I should describe to her the plot of it as I go. In describing A Game of Fox and Squirrels though, she was baffled. I had explained that the main character’s father had done something terrible and that was why the girls had been taken away. At the same time, Samantha is single-mindedly focused on everything going back to the way it used to be, abuse and all. My daughter was, to put it mildly, flabbergasted. And her reaction, I am sure, can be mimicked in a lot of the kids reading this book. This is why it’s so clever that Reese doles out the information on why the girls have left their parents as carefully as she does. Aside from the obvious advantages of setting up the mystery of what happened back in L.A. for the sake of suspense, it allows the child reader to come to like Samantha before coming to the stunning realization that for her “safe” and “home” are not the same things. Samantha’s selective memory of past events is also woven into the narrative, which isn’t first person but stays firmly focused on her as a character. For Reese to successfully pull this novel off, she has to clear up the confusion of why Samantha would ever want to go back to her father by tying that relationship directly to one character: The fox.

Make no mistake, there is a reason you know the fox, meet the fox, and never ever meet or see Samantha’s father in this book. You know that old adage authors are told to adhere to, “Show don’t tell”? When a writer knows what they are doing, you’ll get to see those words put into practice. With infinite cleverness Reese doesn’t tell you much about Sam and Caitlin's father, and she doesn’t even directly tell you much about the fox. Instead, peppered throughout the story, are the rules of playing the card game Fox & Squirrels. Part of the game is to win the fox’s favor by showing your loyalty. And the little sections that talk about the fox speak of it in this way:

“A happy Fox requires very little effort to please. Give the Fox a pair of matching cards, and he’ll stay happy. You can continue on with your day. Earning the favor of a charming Fox is trickier. Sometimes three cards of the same number will appease him, and sometimes he wants three cards with their numbers all in a row. It’s all about what the Fox wants in that particular moment, and no one knows what that is except the Fox! Try everything you can think of. Be as clever as you dare. Hope for the best.”

This distinction between the three ways the Fox can be (Happy, Charming, or Hunting) and the ways you can bend over backwards to appease him echo nicely in the storyline. Throughout the book you watch the squirrels act out this ballet, blaming one another if one upsets the fox somehow, or blaming themselves. You read this book and understand what it means to live on tenterhooks around someone, never knowing if an off-chance sentence or sentiment will anger them. So Reese weaves her storyline in and out between these rules, the actual Fox, and memories of Samantha’s dad (who even then is never fleshed out in any real way). Kids who have never lived with someone with anger issues will suddenly have a window into what living that life entails. Kids that know precisely what Reese is talking about may find both a mirror and a door.

Truly great books for kids have to jump through a number of hoops. Humor is not required but is greatly appreciated (and this book is sure to include some of that). Beautiful descriptive writing is always a delight (“Shadows reached up from the ground, looping dark tendrils around roots and pulling flowers into darkness”). The motivations of the characters should be clear cut and believable. And the characters themselves? Well, here’s a thought. Let’s look at Samantha’s older sister Caitlin. It wasn’t until the end of the book that an idea dawned upon me. The true hero of this story isn’t necessarily Samantha. She’s our protagonist and she’s working through something difficult, but when you get near the end of the book you come to realize that the real hero all along has been her older sister Caitlin. The sister who has literally sacrificed herself for the good of her sister. She, like all the other characters in this book, is seen relatively briefly but is fleshed out lovingly as the story progresses. So complex character development? Check and check and check.

When I was a kid, I had a thing for foxes. I wonder what I would have made of the current foxy crop of books. Between this and Scary Stories for Young Foxes, foxes are getting into some seriously dark territory these days. Even so, I found Jenn Reese’s book a sheer pleasure to read. It’s a mystery. It’s a game. It’s filled with puzzles and riddles and clues. It’s funny, and it’s deadly serious. Parts are evocative and parts are heartfelt and parts are completely unforgettable. Having a rough day/week/month/year? Cuddle up to this. Challenging enough to intrigue you. Enticing enough to keep you.

For ages 9-12.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
Author 70 books998 followers
April 8, 2019
I'll write a longer, real review of this when the book comes out next year, but: I've been lucky enough to read multiple drafts of this book, and it is AMAZING. I love all of Jenn Reese's books, but this is a huge leap forwards even from the wonderful Above World trilogy. It's utterly brilliant, wry and funny and dark and full of heart, and the story and characters have haunted me in the best possible way ever since I read the very first draft.

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Preorder this one! You won't regret it.
Profile Image for Brandy Painter.
1,632 reviews251 followers
May 15, 2020
Originally posted here at Random Musings of a Bibliophile.

Jenn Reese's Above World trilogy is a beloved set of books in this house. My daughter still has all her original copies on her favorite books shelf 8 years later. (One of three series that remained from elementary to high school when others were moved to other rooms as she grew older.) When I discovered a new MG by Reese would be coming out this year, I was so excited. Little did I know the emotional journey in store for me while reading this devastatingly beautiful book.

You can try to plan for the Fox. You can save up your cards for him instead of trying to prepare for winter. Many people do. They spend so much time worried about the Fox that they forget about the rest of the game entirely. But remember: you never know when the Fox will appear, or what kind of Fox he will be when he does. And by then it will be too late.

Samantha (Sam) has just arrived in Oregon with her sister Caitlyn. They are moving in her with their Aunt Vicky and her wife Hannah following Caitlyn suffering a broken arm due to their father's abuse. Aunt Vicky and Hannah live in a wood, own chickens, and Aunt Vicky's business partner has a friendly son named Lucas the same age as Sam. Sam isn't interested any of it. She is convinced she will not be there long. All she wants is to be back in L.A. by the time school starts. When her aunt gives her a card game for her birthday, Sam is intrigued by the beautiful cards containing adorable squirrels. She is particularly enthralled by the charming Fox card. Ashander The Fox has noticed Sam as well. Coming to introduce himself, Ashander offers Sam a deal. Go on a quest in the wood for him to capture the Golden Acorn, and she can have any wish she desires. Sam immediately sees an opportunity to fix her broken family. As the days pass, the quests get more difficult and demand more of Sam. How can she succeed when the Fox keeps changing the rules? And what will she do when Ashander asks her far more than she is willing to sacrifice?

A Game of Fox and Squirrels is a vivid look into the mind of a child who has experienced trauma and is trying to figure out the next step in her world. Sam is suffering from a bit of cognitive dissonance as she starts out her time in Oregon only thinking of the good memories with her parents and desperately planning to get back to them. As her story continues, Sam proves herself to be brave, strong, and in need of a place in the world where she can be loved without fear. Sam's encounters with Ashander bring out her scarier memories of home as the Fox acts out the trademark behaviors of most abusers, continually changing the rules of right behavior and using compliments and sparing affection as weapons. But she knows the rules. Stay loyal. Stay quiet. Do nothing to disturb the peace. Finding strength in the books of fantastical quests that she loves, Sam understands what a true heroine needs to do to make things right. Sam's increasing desperation and fear are difficult to read at times, but with her Aunt and Hannah she has found a place she can rest and experience love. Throughout the story Vicky, an abuse survivor herself, reaches out to Sam in the best ways. It is this plus Sam's love for her sister that finally give her the courage to face the harsh realities of her world and find hope and a home.

All of the character relationships in the novel are well done. Sam and Caitlyn have a relationship built on surviving. They have a methodology and a routine to interacting with people and protecting each other, though the role of protector typically falls to the older Caitlyn. Sam feels the need to become the protector once they're in Oregon, and she falls further and further into the Fox's game. As the story unfolds and the girls adjust to their new reality, their relationship changes shape too. Caitlyn accepts and embraces their new life faster, which creates tension, but opens Sam's eyes to who her sister truly is and could be. Vicky is suffering from memories of her own childhood. She is determined to give the girls a good home and break the pattern of violence. She is still terrified. Hannah is brilliantly supportive through all of this and great with the girls. The support system in this book is rounded out by neighbors Armen and Lucas, who are excellent friends. (Armen is a wonderful father who is doing a fantastic job raising his son.) This character relationships are the heart and soul of this book, and nothing I say about them can adequately describe the nuanced layers Reese was able to develop in each character and their relationships to each other.

What is truly amazing to me is how well Reese pulled off a beautiful story of finding hope in darkness, the true meaning of family, and looking at childhood trauma in 215 pages that include the rules to a card game she created herself. Her sentence level writing is top level craftsmanship. Every page uses its words to their fullest capacity. She winsomely and unflinchingly tells so much story in a short novel. That is a true feat of talent.
Profile Image for Maggie.
519 reviews49 followers
February 20, 2022
WOW. Just, absolutely, wow. This book addresses abuse in maybe the most clever, sensitive, and powerful way I've ever encountered.

So heart-rending. But also, so, so very filled with hope. And an absolute delight to read.

So well-written. The characters! Reese is able to suggest a character's complexity in remarkably few words, showing and suggesting and hinting at every turn. And the pacing is perfect (I've come to believe pacing is one of the biggest, maybe even the biggest, factor that will keep a kid reading.)

There are very, very few books that I wish every single kid (and, heck, adults) would read, but this is one of them.



Profile Image for Alyssa.
131 reviews
August 25, 2023
This book was pretty good ngl.

In this book Sam was removed from a domestic violence situation in her family and is sent to her aunt's with her sister. Catilin's arm has been broken and they are scared to speak up for themselves. Sam is scared to talk about the animals that she sees and about her quest for the golden acorn.

In the end she learns that she is worthy of loving how she is and that a lot of people love her no matter what.
Profile Image for Emily.
195 reviews23 followers
March 21, 2020
Wow, this was not for me. I found it heavy-handed; the protagonist’s voice often veering towards unrealistic, the whole thing rapidly concluded; ugh. I don’t feel great leaving bad reviews so I’m a little glad I’m in the extreme minority (in addition to ratings here, at least one major publication gave it a star), but, yeah, did not go for this one. Everyone processes differently, but for a book exploring the internal aftermath of an escape from an abusive parent, I’d send people to The War That Saved My Life first. Read via digital ARC from #edelweiss
Profile Image for Jamie Dacyczyn.
1,681 reviews91 followers
August 1, 2021
Hm, I'm going to round up my rating for this book to 4 stars, based partly on how I think readers of the intended age will enjoy it. For me, it was more like a 3 star book, but I'm also not the target audience.

I thought that the main character's inner "voice" felt a bit cutesy/childish for an eleven year old, and her decisions required a lot of suspended disbelief. But, I suppose we could write off these kinds of quibbles as her I'm not sure if an eleven year old reading this would understand that kind of nuance, or if they'd just think she was a bit silly for her age.

There's a big overarching allegory in this story that is VERY on the nose, but I guess that's probably the whole point of this story. Make the metaphor so clear that any kid could read this and understand the moral and the deeper meaning of the "fantasy" elements.

I wouldn't classify this as one of those crème de la crème middle reader books that are just as enjoyable for adults as for kids. This is no Spinelli/Stead/Sacher book. But....it's a decent little book that many younger readers will enjoy, and some will also find deeply beneficial if they've also come from a troubled background.
Profile Image for Lisa.
Author 35 books2,081 followers
November 28, 2019
A new favorite, this one. I don't want to say too much because I think you should just read it when it comes out in April, 2020. It is charming at times and haunting at times. It is also filled with so much truth it made my heart hurt. And the last page? It slayed me. Like, I went to bed after reading it and was quietly sobbing because the little girl in me desperately needed to read those words. I think this book may affect people differently depending on their life circumstances, and that's okay. And really, what an incredible talent to be able to write a book so that it works in different ways. It can be a lovely story one enjoys and nothing more. Or it can be a story that helps heal a person. For those who need it in a deep, meaningful way, this book is a gift. Truly. What a gift.
Profile Image for Shaye Miller.
1,236 reviews80 followers
November 16, 2020
I’m really glad I picked out this magical realism book to counter the historical fiction novel I read — I think the combination helped keep me balanced through an already difficult week. 🙂 Yet I should warn that this book definitely had a serving of painful truth to it. Our main character, Sam, is coming out of a home with abuse. She and her sister, Caitlin, were taken from their parents and placed with their Aunt Vicky and her wife in Oregon. Sam is definitely not happy about this change and she just wants to go back home where they belong. When they first arrive, Sam is gifted a curious game called “A Game of Fox & Squirrels.” And when Sam first sees the flash of red out of the corner of her eye, she’s quickly lured into a mysterious world and given a challenge that will change her life in extraordinary ways. This one will be an especially great read during the long winter months. While there’s a lot of cold weather, the story will definitely warm the heart! ❤

For more children's literature, middle grade literature, and YA literature reviews, feel free to visit my personal blog at The Miller Memo!
Profile Image for Rebecca McPhedran.
1,085 reviews65 followers
March 8, 2022
A Maine Student Book Award Choice for 2021/2022

Wow, this book packs an emotional punch. Caitlin and Sam are suddenly faced with the unknown of living with their aunts in Oregon. Sam is really struggling. All she wants is her parents back, and she wants for everything to be back the way it was.

But not everything can be as it was. Their dad hurt Caitlin, and they might not be able to go back. This is such an emotionally charged story about found family and hope. I really liked it!
Profile Image for Nicole M. M..
Author 1 book290 followers
March 24, 2021
This review and many more can be found on my blog: Feed Your Fiction Addiction

This book is powerful and important, and covers the topic of abuse, which isn’t often covered in middle grade. Unfortunately, many kids live in abusive situations, and they need books where they can see themselves and find hope for a better future. I will say that, for kids who are sensitive, it might be difficult to digest, but I think that books like this are needed. It was very obvious to me that Reese came from a difficult background herself because she portrayed the emotions of constantly walking on eggshells around a difficult family member perfectly. Samantha and her sister have struggled between love and fear when it came to their dad, and now that they’ve gone to live with their aunts, they’re just looking for a way to move forward and feel safe. Samantha struggles to trust, and when her aunt gives her a game called Fox and Squirrels, the fox in the game starts visiting her. He seems friendly, but there’s something sinister underneath. Via the fox, Samantha learns to stand up for herself and deal with the emotional baggage that comes with dealing with a controlling presence in her life. She also finds hope through her relationship with her aunts. The story has some difficult moments as Samantha relives her father’s violent temper, but it also shows how the human spirit can overcome. Samantha’s aunts are just what she needs—finally has a reason to feel safe and hopeful about her future.

***Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in order to read it for the Cybils Awards. No other compensation was given and all opinions are my own.***
Profile Image for E.C..
Author 93 books391 followers
April 19, 2021
This is such a beautiful story. It may be a fantasy, but it is full of so much truth, with well-realized characters who feel like real people with real connections. Oddly, it is not the darker, tragic moments that moved me to tears but the small acts of kindness, and the moments of healing. My favorite line: "Nobody is only one thing." There is so much here for readers to connect with, whether they were that quiet child who sought escape in books, or they are a parent or caregiver of young children, or if they have experienced or witnessed abuse. It demonstrates compassion and empathy and patience, and unconditional love and acceptance. There are so many things I love about this, including and especially Lucas' knitting and Hannah and Vicky's loving relationship, and the slow reveal of what happened—and what *really* happened—to Caitlin and Sam. This book will stick with me for a long time, and I look forward to sharing it with my son.
Profile Image for Meera.
1,183 reviews13 followers
September 26, 2022
3.5
I thought this book did an excellent job with the fantasy, and magical realism element being almost like an allegory for the abuse that the main character had gone through. The author also did a good job keeping things tense so you weren't sure exactly how things were going to work out for the two sisters.
Profile Image for Beth Cato.
Author 113 books562 followers
April 2, 2021
I read this as part of my Norton finalist packet.

There's a reason this middle grade book has garnered so much buzz and a Norton nomination: it's a beautifully-done fantasy story in a modern setting with a young girl working through the repercussions of domestic abuse. There are no graphic depictions, but plenty of nuance.

When Sam and her older sister Caitlin are sent to live with their aunt and her wife up in Oregon, Sam is upset at leaving her southern California home and her parents--even though her sister has a broken arm, and it's her dad's fault. Sam is working through a lot. She's mad that their family secret came out, mad at her sister for getting her arm broken, mad at being away from her best friend, mad at her aunt and her wife for being so nice that it is hard to hate them. Amidst all this, Sam encounters a dapperly-attired fox in her room who says that if she can complete his challenges, she can win a Golden Acorn that will enable her to grant a wish. She can go home! But this fox is a trickster and the rules keep changing and the challenges make her do terrible things, and it becomes more and more apparent that this is a game she can never win.

The parallels between the fox's cruel challenges and Sam's father are incredibly well done. There's a heavy message to the book, but it is handled with eloquence. It is an uncomfortable read at times, as well it should be, and contains an overall spirit of hope and resilience that is much needed for kids (and for adults, too). I really think this will become a classic in the middle grade genre.
Profile Image for Deva Fagan.
Author 7 books149 followers
May 14, 2020
This gorgeous story is a contemporary fantasy, in which the fantastical elements allow the reader to explore and come to terms with heartbreaking emotional realities. Featuring a magical card game, a sly talking fox, and a brave girl learning the true meaning of home, this is a perfect modern fairy tale for anyone seeking a light to guide them through dark forests of their own.
Profile Image for Laura.
526 reviews35 followers
January 24, 2021
This middle grade book is a book of magical realism, which usually isn’t my thing, but this one is done quite well. The story centers around Sam, who along with her sister is placed in the care of her aunt following what is an obvious case of domestic violence. Sam meets a fox who promises her a chance to get home if only she can prove her loyalty to him. She has to decide if it’s worth it.

I liked how this book dealt with some pretty heavy issues without being graphic, and that the ending is like a big hug and a warm slice of chocolate cake straight from the oven.
Profile Image for Debbie Gascoyne.
605 reviews25 followers
March 19, 2022
This was well-meaning, and I liked the household and the chickens and the setting, but it just didn't quite work for me. I know it's middle-grade, but I think it could have been a bit more fully developed. And I would have liked more subtlety around the reason for the underlying trauma. Or something. It seemed a bit obvious, and I've also never been that much of a fan of very obvious magic-as-metaphor (which kind of explains why people are describing it in reviews as "magic realism").
Profile Image for Joey.
74 reviews1 follower
July 23, 2020
Clever funny heartbreaking and hopeful. An imaginative way to look at families and escaping adolescence.
Best page is the acknowledgements, noticing all the powerful women to make this effective, including the actual card game.
Profile Image for Jennifer Alvarez.
Author 14 books449 followers
May 16, 2020
Sam is my new favorite kid! This book shattered me, left me breathless, and then put me back together again. I absolutely loved it, I loved the characters, and I felt every beat of Sam's little rabbit heart as if it were my own. The fantasy elements guide the reader through Sam's trauma in a way that informs but protects the reader's psyche, allowing fear and suspense to bloom without overwhelming. All the characters are complex and believable, including the crafty fox. It's a fierce but gentle read that inspires empathy. I highly recommend A Game of Fox and Squirrels! The author's note at the end adds a beautiful finish.
Profile Image for Courtney.
460 reviews6 followers
January 2, 2021
There were parts of this book that I really liked. I loved the characters of Aunt Vicky and Hannah. I mean how great is it to have a married lesbian take in these girls? I liked the idea of the anthropomorphic squirrels and the fox. But... I just didn’t love this book like I thought I would. I wish it had been one thing or the other. I wish it had either been a fantastical adventure story with talking squirrels and a charming but evil fox or that it had been a story about kids leaving a physically and emotionally abusive home. But the way that the fox was meant to be a stand in for the abusive father just felt kind of heavy-handed. Like I couldn’t have missed that if I tried. And honestly in the end I’m not sure if the fox and the squirrels were really real and that bothers me.
Profile Image for Fran.
1,057 reviews2 followers
May 19, 2022
While subject such as abuse and the foster program are indeed heavy, this book was fantastic dealing with them. Lessons learned and adversaries overcome in a fictional card game make this more an fantasy adventure, while the "heroine" learns to trust again. Wonderfully written, with a few illustrated pages, Reese navigated through heavy topics deftly. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Maryam Sidd.
61 reviews8 followers
February 22, 2021
It was good but whyyy didn't the author put the exact thing Sam wished for. And she never clarified how Aunt Vicky got the box or WHY she gave it. I mean if the box was so bad why did Aunt Vicky even give it to her?
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Marzie.
1,133 reviews92 followers
December 18, 2020
Andre Norton finalist Jenn Reese, a children's fantasy author, steps into a contemporary children's lit story with elements of magical realism. Samantha and her sister Caitlyn have been removed from their parents' custody because of physical and psychological abuse. They've been sent to live with their Aunt Vicky and her wife Hannah. While Caitlyn seems to decompress in their home, Sam struggles to adjust to her new reality. She's sure she'd going to be allowed to return to her familiar life any day now. She's reluctant to make a new friend in Lucas, the son of her aunt's work partner. She doesn't see why she needs to be registered for school in Oregon when she lives in California and her best friend BriAnn is probably wondering what is going on with her and where she is. Aunt Vicky introduces Sam to the Game of Fox and Squirrels, a fantasy card game with a slick fox named Ashander and a group of squirrels including Maple, Birch, and Cedar. When a very real Ashander shows up in Sam's room, he offers her the chance to find a golden acorn, which can fulfill any wish Sam might have, like say, going home to her parents. While she pursues the acorn, Sam slowly, almost unwillingly, begins to see the reality of the life she had been living with her parents, and what sacrifices Caitlyn made to protect her younger sister. She also learns, with the help of Vicky and Hannah, what a healthy family can look like.

Limning a brutal family reality and the fantasy world that helps Sam come to terms with her father's abuse and mother's complicity, Reese has done a simply amazing job creating a novel that children and adults will both relate to. This is a novel that slides the knife to the heart in so smoothly and softly at times, in all the little ways that you see Sam justifying the life she and Cait were living, making excuses for her father.

The audiobook, narrated by Sarah Franco, is lovely.

I received a digital review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Octavia Cade.
Author 88 books117 followers
September 1, 2021
I've shelved this under fantasy, but it's only marginally fantasy really, and could almost be interpreted in the way that The Haunting of Hill House is interpreted... with all the non-natural elements resulting from the protagonist's instability and trauma. That trauma, here, is very clearly apparent. Sam and her older sister Caitlin have been removed from an abusive home and sent to live with their aunt. Caitlin is very clear-sighted about their situation, but Sam is miserable and just wants to go home, even though home is awful. Both girls are reacting to their new home as if it is another abusive environment - hyper-aware of their aunt's emotions and her ability to hurt them, and trying their best to mitigate it - even though that new home is a place of safety and understanding and their aunt loves them dearly. It's just very well done, with an enormous amount of restraint and even subtlety, and it wasn't surprising to read the author's note at the back which indicates that they have drawn on sad experience in writing this.

The fantastical elements, real or not, come in the form of the children's game of the title, and Sam slowly comes to realise that the characters in that game act as metaphors for her own family relationships. By playing the game, and interacting with those characters, she is able to grope her way to a healthier understanding of what has happened to her, and how little she is to blame. It's so cleverly and gently done, and even though I own an ecopy, I'm going to have to find a hard copy, I think, because it's lovely and I really want to read it again in a more tangible form.
Profile Image for Margaret.
1,171 reviews60 followers
January 8, 2022
I loved this middle grade contemporary fantasy novel! 11-year-old Sam and her sister Caitlin have an abusive father. When he breaks Caitlin's arm, the sisters are sent to live with their Aunt and her wife in the Oregon woods. But Sam misses her old home. When her aunt gives her a card game of fox and squirrels, the game begins to become a reality for Sam. The trickster fox visits her and she makes a bargain with him. If she solves 3 of his riddles and brings him the answers, she will receive the golden acorn, which grants any wish. She could go home! But as she observes the fox's abusive behavior to his underlings the squirrels—which mirrors her father's behavior—and as her aunts make her feel more welcome and safe than she's ever felt before, she begins to wonder if she should've made the bargain with the fox at all. But it's too late now.

Lesbian rep, great illustration. I always like fairytale novels that connect fairytales with important topics like this. This is also own voices: the author explains at the end her experience with child abuse as well as gives resources. This is an excellent novel and I'm glad I read it!
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