When I first read George Saunders’ fable-like tale, Fox 8, I initially felt amused, then sad, and finally outraged. I also felt a blog brewing – not of the book review variety but of the teaching tool/creativity corner variety. For starters, Fox 8 is less of a charming bedtime story for children – who will no doubt enjoy it – and more of a darkly comic cautionary tale for adults. The titular first-person narrator takes the readers on a journey through his life as a fox who lives and forages with his fellow foxes in the forest. Fox forest life is running smoothly until Fox 8 has his first confusing encounter with humans, which results in conflicting feelings.
Possibility #1 – Teaching Tricky Vocabulary
Whatever you do, make sure you read the story aloud since the fox narrator/writer feels challenged by the orthographical vagaries of the English language. But then again, English spelling is not exactly “strate forword,” as Fox 8 would write. Not only ESL students, but also native speakers grapple with tricky spelling, often in the form of pesky homophones – words that sound alike but are spelled differently (e.g., male – mail, peek – peak). So, of course, this was the first possibility that popped into my mind: Fox 8 as the perfect ingredient to spice up a lesson on “Setting Things Straight: Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs.”
Possibility #2 – Teaching Narrative Shifts in Perspective
The story has much greater potential – especially in the realm of prompts for creative writing exercises, many of which involve shifting narrative perspective (first/second/third person) or gender (he/she/they). However, I decided to opt for the species shift (human/animal/plant).
Here are the easy directions for “Cautionary Tails: What Did the Fox Say?” from my Impromptu Writing course:
- Read the following excerpt from Fox 8, starting with “Deer Reeder: First may I say sorry for any werds I spel rong” on page 3 up to page 4.
- It’s fine to include the picture on page 5, but stop there. Page 6 contains spoilers.
- Now continue the story where Fox 8 leaves off: “But one nite I herd something that made me think twise about Yumans.”
- Yes, the pun and the mini-prompt in the title “Cautionary Tails” are intended. The students’ tales need to incorporate a warning of sorts. (I’m still wondering if the name Fox 8 is also a pun, since the foxes are constantly in search of food – Fox Ate?)
Possibility #3 – Teaching Human-Animal Studies
Last but not least, the shift in species perspective lends itself wonderfully to an exploration of human-animal relations as a kick-off critical thinking exercise in a seminar on that topic.
Ethics and the environment are prominent themes in Fox 8, so you might want to cut the story off at a later point if you’d like your students to contemplate pressing contemporary issues such as habitat displacement and loss, a topic that caught my attention in a recent New York Times post on Instagram, “Animals Are Running Out of Places to Live”.
So, now, “deer reeder” – if I may quote Fox 8 – this blog must come to an end so that you have the opportunity to read a few of my students’ tales as well as my own. But don’t forget to read the excerpt first. Since some of my students chose to follow the fox’s lead in orthography, you might want to read those stories aloud. Enjoy these adventures in writing and reading!
“Prof. Dr. Fox” (Charlina Strelow)
The lady had teers in her I’s, trying to xplane to her chilldren y she had to leaf tommoro mourning. I leened forward, try-ing to show my simp-aty for her sitooation. It is allways hart to leaf them cubs alone, butt a nest has gotta be built, there’s no going around it! Fud needs to be broht into the hous, and it’s a parents’ doote to do tat. Evryone nose tat. Butt then — and u will knot beleaf dis – she sad she has to go worck in a mark-etting firm? It’s her jobb? No, I have not hurd of that before I‑ther … She xplaned to her cubs: she thinks about katchee xongs, and then all the yumans here the xongs and by the things in the xongs. I thought yumans were just like us, but now I know they r les smart. Xinging has pow-er over them! They just do anything if its inna xong! Like a hip-nose-sis. I am gonna lurn moore yuman to studee them moore. Tommoro, I am gonna start an xperiment. I will sneek to the cubs. I will play a difrent xong for eech of them. Like Beethoven and Rammstein. And may-bee one of the cubs is go-ing to gro fastter than the other? Just like plants! Tommoro I will sea.
“Outfoxing the Human” (Maryann Henck)
The human mentioned foxglove, which rhymes with love. At first, I thought oh, how nice. She even said she loved her foxglove and told her pups that she would go out into the garden to fetch some. Each pup should have their own foxglove. Then I thought, “Wait, Fox 8, what does she mean by foxglove? A glove made from a fox? A fox fur glove?”
My fur began to stand on end. I wondered if this human had seen me and was planning to kill me for my fur. I had heard tales of foxes that had been captured for their fluffy, shiny fur so that humans could wear fancy coats in the winter. But I always thought this was a scary fairytale.
Before I could make my escape, the human was already prowling around in the garden in search of foxglove. Since it was already dark, she used a special light. She even shined it in my direction, blinding me for a second. But she didn’t even notice me. She kept mumbling something to herself. It went like this:
Petals so bright
What a delight
I’ll concoct a tea
That they’ll drink for me
Unaware that my brewing
Will be their undoing
For the drink they cherish
Will cause them to perish
I could not believe my fluffy ears. Did this human want to kill her own pups? No fox mother or father would do such an evil deed. Then I recalled my mother’s tales from the olden days, humans called the plant by this name because they thought foxes wore the bell-shaped flowers on their paws to sneak silently through the woods. And then I remembered her warning: No fox in their right mind should wear foxglove because it was poisonous. It could make your heart stop beating. Foxglove was not pure love.
I watched the human as she cut the foxglove and then placed it in a basket. I knew what I had to do. It was time to be Fox 8, the Hero. I crept up behind the human – she didn’t seem to hear me. Mama Fox was right – Foxes didn’t need foxglove to creep silently. Mama Fox was also right about going for the jugular. I leapt, I bit, I killed. Now I just needed to bring the pups to the safety of the fox den. I ruffled my fur, marched toward the open window, and jumped in. Fox 8 to the rescue again.
“Four the Luv of Monny” (Veronika Heinrich)
I herd how the parents of the pup wanted to sel it to the king. It wuld maek gret monny and they reely needed it. I meen, I dont understand what this monny is. But it must be something very gud if they give there pup for it. So I wanted to find out what monny is. Maybe is something nise to eet. Maybe monny is the most tasti fuud on erth.
So I jumpt into the window and into the hous. The pup was there and started to screem. When the parents came, one of them had a big long stick in his hands. I knew those sticks. They maid loud noise and maid foxes hurt so I ran away. Behaind me, I herd the mother sai, “You fuul. That fox would have lookt gret in Hana’s cape. We wud have safed so mutch monny.” And I think I belive thei said thei wanted to hunt more foxes now. I’m sad. I don’t want to see the Yumans again.
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