Back when I could eat out and then wander through the depths of San Francisco’s many indie bookstores, I found myself browsing the children’s section at Green Apple on Clement Street. This book caught my eye. The color palette was unusual for a picture book.
The dark stranger on the cover evoked a sense of mystery and intrigue.
Once there was a ranger.
This straightforward, simple statement takes us into the land of fable.
On the next spread, we are told the ranger’s name is Annie. And that is all. Page turn.
Annie scouts through the underbrush….But then another page turn startles with the surprising, bold choice to depict a fox caught in a trap.
The understated text treats this scene in a very matter-of-fact way.
Annie came upon a fox
who was in a bad way.
The fox looked at Annie,
“I will bind your wounds
and feed you,” said Annie.
And so the fox and Annie become fellow travelers on a parallel journey, not friends per se, for Annie refuses to tame the fox. When Annie is attacked by a ferocious bear, the small fox, with its still bandaged paw, leaps at the bear. And then all goes dark for Annie.
She wakes in a mysterious place and is given a bitter tonic to drink from an old woman before falling back asleep. Note the shadows on this page. (I’m not showing it to you here. Ha!) When Annie awakes the fox is waiting by her side, and the woman is gone.
Next comes an unexpected question:
“Thank you,” said Annie.
“Does this make us even?”
I will let you sit with this for a moment. What is the assumption behind it? That one keeps a running kindness score? That one can “bank” kindness points to use in a mercenary way? How many times have we said “I owe you” in our lives? What exactly are we keeping track of?
The fox’s response to Annie’s question, a snarl, surprises and makes its point without uttering a single word, for it is not human. Annie acknowledges the fox, saying:
“You are right.
I have offended you.”
The pair then continue on their journey together, and now the fox has a name. This picture book haunts me, begs to be re-read. Makes me look closely at each page over and over again. The story is so simple and straightforward, but every time I get to the page where the fox responds to Annie’s question, I’m shaken.
This is Vo’s second book in her Crow Trilogy. I wish I owned the first book, THE OUTLAW, too. I will soon. It’s as enigmatic as this one, giving readers the chance to ask questions and discuss “what it all means” without there being any one right answer. In my mind, this is one of the best kinds of picture books.
A word about Vo’s artwork. The front end papers depict a topographic map with a crow flying overhead, advance warning that we’re about to make our way through dangerous terrain. The back end papers show a crow flying over a barbed wire fence. Perhaps nature meets the world of humans? Perhaps a metaphor for thorny issues? This crow traverses and follows us through both worlds? It’s thrilling when I feel like I could write a seminar paper on a “simple” picture book.
Vo notes that the illustrations were made with watercolor, ink, and acetone transfer on Rising Stonehenge paper, using newspaper clippings and fabric patterns from the 1860s and 1870s. No wonder I could look at these pages for hours. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with for her third book!
Fold this origami fox
Explore these ideas on how you can offer acts of kindness without expecting anything in return.
Pair this book with Pat Zietlow Miller’s book, BE KIND.
Title: The Ranger
Author/Illustrator: Nancy Vo
Publisher: Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2019
Themes: kindness, moral debt, allegory
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s blog.