By John Reynolds Gardiner
No matter what grade I teach, I read this book aloud, and I usually begin on the first day of school. I love it that much. Reading Stone Fox is a great way to show kids a character with character. It inspires my students and me to become the very best versions of ourselves. It teaches us to lean into hard work, and it shows what it looks like to truly love someone. This book helps me to promote the culture I desire for our classroom.
One year, I was teaching first grade, and I announced that it was time for independent reading, one of my students groaned, “Oh man. I don’t like reading time.” There was an audible gasp (from me!) because if there’s one thing I want my students to leave my classroom with, it’s a love for reading books.
Before I said a word, I considered the student. He was a beginning reader. The books he could read went something like this, “The sun is yellow. I like yellow. The ball is red. I like red . . .” It’s no wonder he didn’t love reading.
I stopped everyone, right then and there. I told them to come over to me— that I had something to share with them. First, I told the young boy who’d made the comment that I understood his frustration. I shared my understanding that the only real excitement for beginning readers, in most books, was the satisfaction of being able to read more and more words as the kids learned more and more phonics rules. That’s something, but it’s not always enough.
I gathered everyone in close, and I began reading Stone Fox. The kids were absolutely captivated. We stopped to talk, every now and then, discussing what was happening in the story and their feelings about it. When I said we had to stop, everyone groaned—this time, in disappointment.
The next day, I finished the story. By the end, I had seven kids on my lap, and nearly all 25 of us were having a good cry. I explained that when you can read, the best books make you feel things in your heart. They can make you laugh aloud, or gasp in surprise, or even feel afraid. They can teach you things so that you feel wise, or determined to make a difference for good, or even just inspired to try something new.
There’s a place in the book when Willy gets hit in the face by Stone Fox. Willy hadn’t done anything wrong, but he didn’t shout, “I’m telling! I didn’t do anything wrong. You’re a jerk!” When I ask my students how they’d respond, they usually say something like, “I’d tell my mom. I’d get that guy in trouble.” As a parent, I guess I’d want my child to tell me if someone had hit them, but when Willy responded with grace and sincere caring, my students’ eyes are opened to another way of thinking. In the book, that grace and sincere caring was the difference between winning and losing.
By the way, some people think it’s cruel to read heart-wrenching books with kids. I disagree. We all experience tough times. When kids experience big feelings through quality children’s books, they can actually help them as they deal with tough times in their own lives.
When I think of all I want for my readers, Stone Fox helps to set the stage.
John Reynolds Gardiner’s action-packed canine adventure story of a thrilling dogsled race has captivated readers for more than thirty years. Based on a Rocky Mountain legend, Stone Fox tells the story of Little Willy, who lives with his grandfather in Wyoming. When Grandfather falls ill, he is no longer able to work the farm, which is in danger of foreclosure. Little Willy is determined to win the National Dogsled Race—the prize money would save the farm and his grandfather. But he isn’t the only one who desperately wants to win. Willy and his brave dog Searchlight must face off against experienced racers, including a Native American man named Stone Fox, who has never lost a race. Exciting and heartwarming, this novel has sold millions of copies and was named a New York Times Outstanding Children’s Book.