24/08/2003

The Fox-Busters (by Dick King-Smith)

I'd never heard of Dick King-Smith until my older son was about six, and starting to borrow books from his school library. I was immediately captivated. Apparently he was a soldier, a farmer and a teacher before he became a writer. Reading his books, it's clear that all his previous careers have influenced his writing. Several of them take place on farms, with normal events taking place alongside the rather unlikely ones. The animals have characters and conversations, but they remain animals, with the inherent traits and behaviour of their species.

Wanting something completely different to read, I sat down with this for an hour this evening! 'The Fox-busters' was Dick King Smith's first published novel for children, and is the story of a stategic battle between the Foxearth fowls and their deadly enemies the long-noses, otherwise known as foxes.

Unfortunately the local farmers have not always been as careful as they could have been, so over the years any weaker or less intelligent fowl have been caught and eaten by the foxes who live near by. Those who remain are not just a little stronger than average, however; the theory of evolution by survival of the fittest is taken to logical extremes in this story.

These hens have developed remarkable flying abilities, and are a great deal more intelligent than hens are in general. They think for themselves, and have even learned to read. Some of the youngsters in the flock are not only strong flyers, but confident and co-ordinated, able to give displays of aeronautic acrobatics.

Meanwhile, four particularly intelligent foxes have also evolved; these four long for a taste of chicken, and so come up with a terrible plan, which is initially successful. The climax of the book is exciting, but not unrealistic (within the parameters of the story) since some of the hens and one important character are lost in a dramatic battle.

This book is intended for children of about seven to ten. As it's full of action with some fighting, it would probably appeal more to boys than to girls. There is some overt violence which might upset a more sensitive child; nevertheless it reflects realistically the cruelty of nature, and is not over-gory or sentimental.

The ending is mostly encouraging, though bitter-sweet. By the time the book reaches the final, climactic battle I had lost all sympathy with the foxes, despite their cleverness, but I was sorry about one loss amongst the fowl. I would advise parents wanting to read this aloud to much younger children to check the first chapter and the last two beforehand.

For most children, however, this would be an enjoyable read. The language is straightforward without being condescending or 'easy'. My sons both read it when they were about eight or nine, and have re-read it since, when wanting something quick and mildly amusing (as have I!). The inherent humour in the idea of hens laying hard eggs as weapons will appeal to people of all ages, and there is also a lot of other subtle humour which appeals more to adults and older children than to litle ones.

Definitely recommended.

(My longer review of 'The Fox-Busters' can be found on the Ciao site)

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