Review of the Day: How to Find a Fox by Kate Gardner, photos by Ossi Saarinen
Great nature photography, like any art, is wasted on adults. Unfortunately, adults have a tendency to rule the world, so this situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. I have noticed, over the years, that when a book for adults is popular and involves photos in some way, a watered down, half-hearted children’s book version of that title is inevitably released a year later. I don’t think that adults know what they’re doing when they hand kids the dregs, of course. I suspect that were one to ask them they’d say they were being generous. Yet considering how influential children’s books can be on young growing brains, and how they have the potential to shape entire lives, shouldn’t children be given top-notch photographic works all the time? Shouldn’t they also be given original books with original photography that’s so splendid and awe-inspiring that it takes their breath away? Shouldn’t they, in other words, see more books like Gardner and Saarinen’s How to Find a Fox? Deftly capturing the majesty, mystery, and downright good looks of foxes, this book is the rarity that proves the rule. Kids don’t get enough truly great photography on their shelves. All the more reason to hand them this, if only to watch their eyes pop right out of their little heads.
“If you want to find a fox, you can look in the forest… or the meadow.” Sumptuous photography accompanies a text that explains the finer ins and outs of spotting a fox in the wild. Avoid the rain. Try the early morning or somewhere around twilight. You can look any time of the year, but avoid the sky, the trees, or the river since you won’t find them in any of those places. But if you are calm and quiet, like the photographer of this book, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll be lucky someday and a fox will come to you. Backmatter includes a note from the photographer and a small Bibliography of sources.
Full disclosure, when I was a kid, I went through a bit of a fox phase. It only stands to reason. More beautiful than coyotes or accessible than wolves, foxes always struck me as the perfect mix of dog and cat elements. Not that they have any true connection to felines, but there’s more than a hint of a cat’s personality in your average fox. Had I seen this book back then, I would have been thoroughly enthralled. Finnish photographer Ossi Saarinen does not merely capture a fox’s form but its essence. Its soul. That shot on the cover is quite good, and if every image inside the picture book were less than that, it would still mean the book was worth reading. But what’s so impressive about this title is that it improves upon and exceeds itself consistently. Saarinen has managed to come up with a wide range of different kinds of shots of foxes. From rollicking cubs, to extreme close-ups, to landscape shots where the fox is simply a small figure against a sweeping autumnal background, the variety of images is part of the book’s unique lure. You’re simply not going to find a book with photographs of foxes quite as good as this one for kids out there. So when I spoke earlier about how kids aren’t often given great works of photography for fun, that may have more to do with the lack of books in the market than with a young person’s predilection towards realism or not.
Though the bulk of the charm of this book rests on Mr. Saarinen’s shoulders, a truly good picture book for kids needs at least a little talent on the part of its author. This is where How to Find a Fox lucks out. As it just so happens, Kate Gardner knows how to write. Truly great picture books consist of above average writing and illustration. In this case, rather than illustration we have photographs, and they do a job that is only heightened by the work put into the text. I admit that I do wish that I knew how this book came to be. Did the text come first and then Mr. Saarinen adapted his photos? Did the photographs come first and then Ms. Gardner wrote her text? It’s impossible to say. What we do know is that with this title Ms. Gardner’s words melt into the images. When she discusses the different kinds of footprints you might see in the snow or alludes to the skies, the trees, and the river, perhaps she had no idea what images might accompany these sequences. Even more interesting to me is how she sets up this book. She writes it as a kind of instructional guide. If you follow the rules she lays out for you, you may still never see a fox, but at least you have a chance. Under the hand of Ms. Gardner then, this is a book brimming with that possibility.
Naturally whenever I’ve encountered a nonfiction picture book for kids, I want to know what it all means. If this book is as excellent as I think it is, does that mean that we’ll be seeing more photography-illustrated books for kids in the future? The answer is probably no. Though costs of development and printing have fallen over the years, industry prejudice against picture books that meld photography and text remains high. This is a bit of spillover from the adult art world, where photography never quite managed to establish itself as one of the finer arts. The advantage of How to Find a Fox, however, is that it technically falls into the nonfiction picture book category. With that, I’m hoping that it gets properly elevated by the nonfiction loving teachers and librarians of the world. And until that happy day arrives, I’ll just hug my own copy tight and then tell every last soul I know about it. Like you. And you. And you over there. And especially you.
On shelves September 14th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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