- Life Style
“The Fox Hotel” is a great title for a children’s book, implying all sorts of amusing possibilities. Is it a hotel for foxes, or is it just managed by them? Is it a real hotel - does it have room service and a swimming pool, do they serve alcohol, what cable channels do they get - or is it just a field of foxholes with a nice view? Are these anthropomorphic foxes of the “Fantastic” sort, or just feral, fanged critters?
Unfortunately, none of these issues matter, as author Mohamed Makhzangi took an entirely different approach to writing his first children’s book in 2010 - one that suggests he might never have met a living child.
The first of the book’s thirty-three stories imagines mankind declaring war on all types of birds. This story has a dark premise and ends tragically, which may seem like an unusual way to start a children’s book. Yet this opening makes sense, as “The Day the Birds Disappeared” is by far the book’s strongest story, and the only one to display imagination.
Darkness is not such a problem in the rest of the book’s ecologically-themed stories; rather, the real issue is the irrelevance of most of the subject matter: one story is about the movement of tectonic plates, and there are casual references to the Boer and Opium Wars. The kind of child Makhzangi is catering to most likely does not exist, and if they did, they probably would not venture outdoors, least of all to buy a children’s book.
A baby giraffe is the lead character in the second story, which aims for a more child-friendly tone, but ends up being completely dull and uninspiring. A dry first-hand account of how giraffes are nurtured into adolescence, the story is not cute, amusing, or clever. It just reads like a baby giraffe wrote its own Wikipedia page. “I can’t go foraging with my mother yet because I am still too young, and I will get sunburned,” the giraffe whines.
The stories become increasingly duller as the book progresses, and most of them are so short, it is hard to tell if the author was being lazy, held at gunpoint to fulfill a quota, or if he just thinks that kids are incapable of absorbing anything beyond the broadest of details. Hardly any of the characters have names - they are known merely as “deer,” “waterfall,” or “young zebra” - which would be fine if they had any discernible personalities, but they do not. They are just regular animals doing regular animal things. One two-page story revolves around the author watching a bird try to eat an egg.
There is never any sense of conflict or drama; the book lacks anything to suggest the author actually cares about the stories he is telling or has a particular reason to tell them.
“The Salmon Climb the Stairs,” for example, tells of how a dam threatened regional salmon with extinction because they could no longer swim upstream to lay their eggs. Fortunately for the salmon, “A group of activists made a big fuss in the press, on the radio, television and the internet. Millions of people sympathized with the salmon which only wanted to return home and lay eggs, and thousands of people came out in support of the salmon; and the government had to react, quickly, holding an emergency meeting with specialists to find a solution” (p.24). When that is the most detailed, eventful paragraph in a supposedly educational story written for children, why bother? Schools already give out boring textbooks; why would anyone buy a summarized, vastly dumbed-down one?
Makhzangi does occasionally break the monotony, although for reasons that remain unclear. Perhaps it was an urge for experimentation, or just a general dislike of children, that led him to write one story as a sequel to the 2003 American animated film “Finding Nemo.” In Makhzangi’s version, Nemo knows he was the star of a blockbuster called “Finding Nemo,” and the story shockingly ends with the entire cast of the film being dragged away in a fisherman’s net. It should be noted that before the killing of his entire social circle, Nemo dictates a lecture on the twin meteorological phenomena of El Nino and El Nina. Why? Because they “sound similar” to his name, and he did not want kids to get confused, which indicates Nemo thinks as much of kids as Makhzangi does.
To be fair, “The Fox Hotel” does not claim to be any more than what it is: a collection of stories about nature and animals, written in simple prose, meant to educate and entertain readers of all ages. However, the amount of education or entertainment to be derived from the book is too minimal to matter. Giving a child a copy of this book depends on whether you aim to stimulate, or just temporarily distract them.
The only praise “The Fox Hotel” deserves should be directed toward Walid Taher, whose beautiful illustrations liven these non-stories up considerably.
Oh, and the titular hotel? It’s a tree house for a young Queen Victoria to watch foxes from, only the foxes never show up, because they are freaked out by the unnatural-looking tree. And no, it’s not a metaphor, just really anti-climactic, and the fourteenth in a succession of thirty-three disappointments.
If you pick up this book thinking you or your child will be enjoying anecdotes about ordering rabbit from a bushy-tailed waiter at the hotel’s fancy restaurant, or maybe laughing at pictures of drunk, sunglass-wearing foxes floating in a fox-shaped swimming pool, prepare to be let down. “The Fox Hotel” reads like the transcript to a nature program, and not even one of those good BBC shows. It will leave you thinking that maybe it’s not such a shame that animals cannot speak. For a children’s book, that’s borderline criminal.