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Fox picture book helps children understand death

A children’s picture book is an unexpected place to find a discussion of death and decay, but Cambridgeshire author Isabel Thomas enjoys helping children talk about big ideas.

The writer, from Stapleford, is about to publish her second picture book after the success of her first, Moth, which introduced readers to the theory of evolution.

Now she has written Fox: A Circle of Life Story, which was inspired by her own children’s questions about what happens after something dies.

Isabel Thomas, author of Fox (42431399)
Isabel Thomas, author of Fox (42431399)

Isabel says: “I wanted to tackle another really big question for the follow-up book, so the one that I chose was what happens when something dies. My own kids were interested in this after we came across a dead pigeon on a walk and we started talking about what has actually happened. They are always really matter of fact when they are young, but when you start talking about a pet dying and then about people dying, they really want answers and the book aims to bridge that gap and give parents and educators a way into those conversations.

“It’s ageless in a way as it’s told in a narrative form and uses very poetic picture-book language. It has short text on each page and beautiful pictures so you can read it to a child of four or five years old, and I have certainly read Moth to reception children.

“You can use it to talk to children who are feeling really sad about losing a pet, say, or even a relative, and use it to talk in a matter-of-fact way about the circle of life and explain what happens when all of those particles that made up the fox get recycled back into nature.”

Fox: A Circle of Life Story answers the big question: what happens when we die? Bringing together an evocative non-fiction narrative with breathtaking illustrations, this book will help parents and children to talk about life and death. It introduces the scientific concept that death leads to new life, and that this way of understanding the world is no less beautiful and awe-inspiring.

It begins in the frost-covered forest of early spring, fox is on a mission to find food for her three cubs. As they grow, she teaches them how to survive in the wild. Until one day, the fox dies. Her body goes back to earth and grass and air, nourishing the world around her and bringing the forest to life. Death is not just an end, it’s also a beginning is the message.

Isabel Thomas, author of Fox (42431397)
Isabel Thomas, author of Fox (42431397)

“I write a lot of non-fiction and a lot about science, but this is a blend of scientific information about what happens when something dies but it is also quite poetic and uses the story to explain something quite complex,” says Isabel.

“It starts by following the fox and her cubs with her finding them food and teaching them how to be in the world. It’s not the kind of picture book that names the characters. It is not fluffy or cute, but it is beautiful and tries to keep things grounded in reality.

“Everything is going along as normal and then she gets hit by a car and [illustrator] Daniel Egnéus has done the most spectacular picture of the fox being thrown through the air by the car, which of course isn’t the typical kind of thing you would find in a picture book but it is beautiful and it does reflect that reality that death just comes and it is often very shocking and very sudden and that can affect children. They are totally shocked if they lose a pet and sometimes if the death of a grandparent is unexpected – to them at least – and seems to come out of nowhere.

“They often, actually, want the truth reflected rather than being protected because then they have no reference points to try to process that at all.

“We see the cubs carry on in the background, we see their lives and that they are growing but the focus is on what happens then to the fox.

“So you see how the fox starts to fade away and the tiny particles return to the earth. We see the tiny creatures involved in the decomposition process and then the particles go into new life and the message it ends on is that life is everywhere, death is not just an end but also a beginning, so it is really open for parents and teachers to use it how they want to for different children who need different things from the book. It’s an opening for people to start those really hard conversations.”

Isabel had been thinking about the ideas behind the book for some time after losing her own mother while she was in her 20s.

She says: “It does draw on my experience. I lost my only parent at quite a young age,

in my mid-20s, and I don’t have a religion myself but I think this book sits side by side with any religious beliefs very comfortably. As I didn’t have the structure of religion in my life to reach for, I have understood death as part of the cycle of life and of death in nature.

“I was really kind of struck by reading an extract from a Philip Pullman book, the third in the His Dark Materials Trilogy, where he describes the journey of the atoms that make up the body after people die and they become these new things. I read it about 10 years ago and it really sowed the seed for the way that I think about death myself and helped me talk to my children about it. My mum was buried in a woodland cemetery surrounded by trees and daffodils, so it’s a beautiful way to think about it, actually, that all those particles do get recycled in that way and become new life.”

Being a mum to three inquisitive children meant that even on a walk, Isobel would be confronted by their questions about the nature of life and why things happen.

Moth, by Isabel Thomas (42431403)
Moth, by Isabel Thomas (42431403)

She says: “My own children have always been really fascinated about talking about death in nature when we come across it. For instance, my middle child was quite sensitive about it when we found a baby bird that had fallen out of the nest. But I find that if I start to place it in the wider picture of the process of life and explain it’s not an end point, it does comfort him and he will think about it in a slightly different way.”

For anyone worried about an adult topic being depicted in a picture book, Isabel is keen to stress the subject is covered in a non-graphic way and is accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Daniel, who as well as illustrating children’s books, regularly illustrates for the likes of Chanel, H&M, Nike and many more.

Isabel explains: “The decomposition pictures are not at all graphic, it is all very beautiful, even the one of the fox flying through the air when she is hit by the car. The decomposition pictures are very subtle, you might get one with a magpie hovering nearby but they are not at all gruesome, it is art, it’s not like a science textbook.

“It’s amazing how complex picture books can be and often an adult gets something different out of it from a child. It is a bit of a difficult topic for a picture book, but at the moment the world is kind of bleak and I think children are maybe a bit sceptical that everything is as fluffy and cosy as they read in their story books. I think they reach for the truth, they want the truth.

“Children can’t help but hear about the pandemic and there will be children who have lost a family member this year from coronavirus. I wrote this two years ago, long before the pandemic, but it does seem timely.”

Isabel started writing as a student at Oxford University where she studied human sciences.

“I have a science background but I began work in science writing straight after university and my first job was writing textbooks, but I was always writing and combining those two things. It’s just finding something that satisfies those parts of me. That started at university because I started off doing engineering and I just found that it didn’t quite suit me. What I really wanted to do was work on the student newspaper and I did swap in the end to do human sciences, covering evolution and genetics and zoology physiology – all the things I like to write about now. I ended up working almost full time on the student newspaper.

“After university, I wanted to do something that combined writing with the fascination I have for nature and the universe. I love how, as an author, I can switch topics and every project is something new to explore. I like moving onto new subjects... both science and writing offer that.”

Fox: A Circle of Life Story by Isabel Thomas and illustrated by Daniel Egnéus is published on October 1, priced £12.99.

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