“Badger and Fox and Friends,” by Edward Zlotkowski, is a lovely book for reading to children ages 3 through 5, and for those up to about age 9 who can read it themselves. Both the stories and endearing illustrations celebrate friendship and cooperation. The two protagonists are quite different — neat, methodical Badger, and whimsical, zesty Fox set out to solve problems, accomplish tasks, and do caring deeds for their companions.
Their adventures include building communal gathering places, such as a snow house, which the group determines would make a great birdfood bank for their feathered friends who find it hard to locate enough to eat during the winter. In another chapter, they turn a hidden den into a clubhouse. The simple rules: Everyone takes turns bringing a favorite game, a favorite song, and a favorite snack. To make it special, they create a password: friends … and don’t worry if you forget it … the members will remind you.
Food features largely throughout, especially for Fox, who mentions snacks every chance she gets. Also, for Rabbit’s birthday, she wants to make a chocolate cake, having heard that rabbits really like chocolate. But Badger wants to make their friend something unexpected, since Rabbit loves surprises, and she decides on strawberries. A surprise party evolves from their plans, in which they split up the tasks. At Racoon’s pumpkin party, there’s bobbing for apples and, of course, pumpkin bread.
Some of the adventures include a daring rescue of Squirrel’s nephew, Beechnut, who gets stuck on a branch hanging way out over a waterfall. With teamwork, they can save the little one using Badger and Fox’s picnic blanket: “Badger took one corner of the blanket, Otter another, Fox a third, and Rabbit a fourth. Then they spread out the four corners as far as they could. The Porcupine Twins looked on, their eyes wide open.”
And Badger teaches Fox how it is important to let their friends shine with a talent show, explaining, “The whole purpose of a talent show is to give lots of folks a chance to show their talents.” Again, they work together to organize the big event. The rundown: “Raccoon plans to show how good she is at opening closed boxes and bins. Owl knew a lot of riddles and funny questions beginning with ‘Whooo?’ The Porcupine Twins hoped to have a quill-shooting contest, and Possum said she could play possum for as long as anyone wanted. Squirrel planned to dazzle the audience with acrobatic leaps among the trees, and Rabbit rehearsed the magic trick he had learned from his uncle — complete with an old top hat.”
There’s also a sweet moment evolving in the story in which Badger’s Great Aunt Badger sends two frilly dresses. Fox is nonplussed, typically only wearing sweats and T shirts, while Badger wears jeans. Trying them on, they decide to ask their friends what they can do with them. Rabbit says to pick berries. Raccoon would use them for a fishnet. Squirrel thinks they would make great parachutes. But it’s Skunk who explains the true reason: “‘Oh that’s easy,’ Skunk replied, ‘They’re for saying nice things about.’ There was a long silence. Then Fox asked, ‘That’s it?’ That’s a lot,’ Skunk assured her. ‘Saying nice things is very, very important.’”
One of my favorite chapters is when a big bear comes, who believes the forest belongs to him, as he’s the strongest and biggest. Each friend explains what they are the best at … fastest runner, best organizer. “Everyone’s the most or best something — or could be,” explains Fox. Badger says, “So, you see, the forest belongs to all of us, and that can include you too, if you want to live here.” Eventually, they tell the bear how each of them will help him, and Bear is amazed: “Finally, after shuffling his feet a little, he said, ‘I can’t believe how lucky I am I found this forest — and so many new friends.’”
The book came about when Zlotkowski was volunteering at his granddaughter’s class and thought it would be nice to write something he could read to the students. The preschool started using the stories for their rest hour. By the time he decided to put the stories into a formal form, he had another granddaughter, and so he knew the companions would be female. Zlotkowski was determined to create a set of 12 stories covering the months of the year, in which there were creatures who had different points of view and grew and learned nondogmatic ways, but the whole emphasis would be on the various ways they came together to help each other.
Zlotkowski, who also has puppets of the main characters, is willing to bring the stories to groups or classes to read, and then engage the children in conversation that helps empower them.
“Badger and Fox and Friends” by Edward Zlotkowski, with illustrations by Karen Busch Holman, $14.95. Available at Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, Tending Joy in West Tisbury, and at the website badgerandfoxandfriends.com, which includes additional children’s books, teaching tools, audio readings, and printable activities.