For a Children’s Book Full of Mischief and Beauty, Hunt Down The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night

Peter Spier’s gorgeous take on an old English carol is the perfect family activity for Thanksgiving.

The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night book cover overlaid on sheet music.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Dragonfly Books.

One Thanksgiving in the mid-1980s, dinner consumed, dark falling on my grandparents’ New Hampshire farm, my extended family sang the old folk song “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night.” The adults belted out the lyrics, my uncle played the guitar, and the children chimed in whenever lines and words were repeated. I had no idea that this English carol might date to the 15th century; as is the way of children, I just thought, “This song our grown-ups are teaching us is so fun.” When we were done, we begged my uncle to play it again and again.

There’s something in this song that’s perfectly calibrated to children’s tastes—probably that it’s a tale of (mild) mayhem at polite society’s expense. The story stars a very sly fox, who sneaks into a farmer’s pen with poaching on his mind. “A couple of you will grease my chin, before I leave this town-o,” he promises to the assembled fowl, before escaping with a duck across his back and a goose in his mouth. The farmer’s wife hurries to raise the alarm.

Old Mother Giggle-Gaggle jumped out of bed

Out of the window she popped her head

Crying “John, John, the grey goose is gone

And the fox is on the town-o, town-o, town-o

John, John, the grey goose is gone

And the fox is on the town-o.

What glee we felt at her chagrin! How much we cheered for the little fox! Even better was the bloodthirsty part at the end, when the “fox and his wife, without any strife/ Cut up the goose with a fork and knife,” eat their fill, then let their cubs finish off the fowl: “The little ones chewed on the bones-o, bones-o, bones-o.” How gruesome! We, the other “little ones,” absolutely loved it.

Any family with children that’s planning to celebrate Thanksgiving together—and is vaguely amenable to group singing—should buy a copy (or a few) of the children’s book The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, illustrated by the Dutch American artist Peter Spier and first published in 1961. The singer Laura Veirs has recorded a good children’s version of the song, to help you get the melody down; or you couldn’t go wrong with good old Pete Seeger. If you have a family member who plays guitar, have them bring it to the feast.

Spier, who died in 2017, decided after singing the song with his wife while on a trip to Vermont that the old carol would make a good book. He later returned to the town of Newfane with sketchbooks and took copious notes on the land, the farms, and the architecture. The resulting pages are so incredibly beautiful and full of detail it feels like a shame to turn them at the speed that the song requires. (My own child likes to sing it together once and then look at the book again when we’re done.)

The fox dashes past tobacco drying in a barn, a trundle bed scattered with clothes and a daguerreotype portrait of a Civil War soldier in the farmer’s bedroom, a child’s swing hanging from a branch of a tree that’s in full autumn color. A “chilly night” might mean spring or winter, but Spier chose fall, and the colors of the trees and bushes work perfectly with the sassy orange coats of the fox family. The end of the book features the sheet music for the song, and each verse is illustrated with the corresponding number of cute little fox cubs—a fun extra counting lesson.

Spier’s attention to the particularities of each scene, I learned when I sought out more of his books after falling in love with this one, was his trademark. We also have his The Erie Canal (1964), an illustration of the early 20th century song “Low Bridge, Everybody Down,” as well as his London Bridge Is Falling Down! (1972). Both are full of small details of historical life. Along the Erie Canal, the mule Sal’s stall, fully equipped with currycomb, harness, liniments, and feed barrel, has a ragged notice pinned up on the wall, advertising “New Toll Rates”; a runaway watchdog on London Bridge leaves fainting housewives and overturned baskets of green apples in his wake.

I have to laugh at myself, a little, giving my kid this kind of book. There is a certain social-studies-teacher-rapping-her-lesson earnestness to it all. Geographer Peirce Lewis wrote an appreciation of Spier’s books in the journal Pioneer America in 1978 that compared them favorably to kids TV, which he thought was produced by people with “barbaric taste” and featured advertisements that were “vicious” in their effectiveness. (Ah, Peirce Lewis! What might you think of YouTube!) I would never want to be the kind of parent who allows only medicinal books in the house. But I also believe that, although kids’ culture should sometimes be just theirs, it’s great to find some culture that you can enjoy together. For us—at least so far—these books fit the bill.

One more bonus: Spier’s books are something of a salve for the anxious patriot. Lewis wrote of Spier’s Star-Spangled Banner (I just ordered a stocking stuffer copy): “There is romance and pathos in these handsome pictures, but there is no hokum. … Unlike so many children’s illustrators who condescend to their audience, Spier obviously takes the viewer seriously, his taste and intelligence both.” Spier spent years in the Theresienstadt concentration camp as a teenager; thanks to the Nazis, his formal education ended when he was about 14. It’s probably a little sentimental to connect that biographical fact to the strong feeling of intimacy and joy that shines through his representations of the American landscape. But, as you can see from this post, I’m sentimental.

The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night book cover.
Dragonfly Books