The Power of a Burning Wish
Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee’s collaborative novel
entwines the story of one girl’s grief with that of a fox with a
rare but important destiny.
BY JULIA SMITH
Among Jules and Sylvie Sherman’s dad’s Do Not rules is that they are never to go near the Slip, a dangerous point where the Whippoorwill River surges beneath the ground before reemerging downstream. However, this wild, watery place in
the woods behind their Vermont home holds a particular allure: it is the perfect place
to throw wish rocks. Jules, 11, is a rock hound who loves sorting her collection into
“Sherman Galaxies” of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rock, but wish rocks
are a category unto themselves. These rocks are for writing a burning wish that might
just come true when cast into the Slip. Sylvie, 12, is a runner whose burning wish is
to run faster; but one morning when she doesn’t return from a last-minute dash to the
Slip, Jules can only find a tree root poking out of the path, followed by a gash in the
snow that ends at the river. And just like that, Sylvie is gone forever.
Elsewhere in the forest, a fox gives birth to three kits and knows that her little girl,
Senna, is Kennen—spiritually connected to another living creature. As Senna grows, Jules
and her father struggle to cope with Sylvie’s death, their grief compounded by the linger-
ing loss of the girls’ mother a few years earlier. Jules runs
through what-if and if-only scenarios that would have
kept her sister alive, alternately feeling despair and anger
over what has transpired. Her inability to control her
emotions rings true, and readers will empathize with
her desire to find her feet in a world “After Sylvie.”
Despite the heavy nature of the story, it maintains a
forward momentum and resists taking on a brooding
atmosphere. This is due in part to the way the narra-
tive shifts, drawing on different characters’ experiences
with death. The girls’ friend Sam had a burning wish
for his brother, Elk, to return safely from Afghanistan;
though he did, Elk’s best friend did not, and Jules and
Elk form a quiet camaraderie in their search for solace.
Rules and rituals evolve to remember departed loved
ones, create order, and stay safe: Jules sorts her rocks,
and her dad devises more Do Nots.
Throughout, Jules chases the question “Where do
you go when you die?” It’s a query she and Sylvie used
to answer with the Maybe game, postulating, “Maybe
you fly away like a bluebird,” or maybe you simply
shrink until no one can see you. Once Sylvie dies, this
question is joined by another: Why did Sylvie want to
run so fast? Jules’ sister had always kept this a secret,
but both answers, as it turns out, are wrapped up in Senna.
Many readers will quickly guess the connection between Senna, Sylvie, and Jules, but
the exact implications to the plot are not as easily discerned. Additionally, the concept
of Kennen imparts another avenue for the authors to explore grief, offering a comfort-ing spiritual explanation that is not tied to religion. While this may not resonate with
everyone, the fantasy element inherent to Senna’s story helps keep the book’s serious
aspects from overwhelming young readers.
Neither author is a stranger to writing poignant animal stories that tackle weighty
themes, as Appelt proved in her Newbery Honor Book, The Underneath (2008), and
McGhee showed in Firefly Hollow (2015). Together, they create a delicate world that
effortlessly impresses itself upon the reader. It is a world where bad things can happen
for no good reason, where catching sight of a fox means luck, where love transcends all
boundaries, and maybe death doesn’t have to be an ending.
Maybe a Fox.
By Kathi Appelt and
Mar. 2016. 272p. Atheneum/Caitlyn
Dlouhy, $16.99 (9781442482425).