Isaac Peterson: An Alaskan Sunrise Inspired the Hushed Landscape of 'Gray Fox in the Moonlight' | SLJ 2023 Stars

The author/illustrator describes his inspiration for this story about a mother fox making her way across an autumnal landscape to get home to her kits.

Gray Fox in the Moonlight


Gray Fox the Moonlight is so spare and the images so quietly deliberate that it’s easy to imagine creator Isaac Peterson’s life as one of calm control. Nope.

He and his wife run a small publishing company, Emerald Books. “We help authors publish their own books. Basically I am doing book layout and children’s books all the time,” says Peterson. “I’m lucky that everything I do is creative and related to design and publishing.”

His first love, though, is art. The cover painting of Gray Fox in the Moonlight, published by Collective Book Studio, looks carved out of the northern lights. Within the pages, as a mother fox makes her way across an autumnal landscape to get home to her kits, the curl of paw prints and leaf shadows echo each other, while the unfurling of ferns hint at the snowy season to come. The last fall leaves swirl around her, and so do the words on the page. There are few words, carefully placed, each one weighted.

Photo courtesy of Isaac Peterson

“I’m from Alaska. The easiest way to get to school was just to cross-country ski down the hill,” Peterson says. “Fairbanks is close to the Arctic Circle, so near the solstice the sun doesn’t even rise all the way.” He describes how the sun hovers at the horizon, with the sky turning light, temporarily, before passing back into darkness. “Skiing to school is one of my most intense memories, and it is only images and sensation,” he notes. “I have always wanted to convey at least part of that experience in images. That became the story of first an Alaskan wolf, but then I changed it to a fox.”

Peterson started creating young—in kindergarten, with “Leo Lionni fan fiction,” he says. “I was profoundly moved by his books as a kid, especially Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. There were so many unresolved elements in it.”

Later, he came to a more complicated understanding of those works. “I think Lionni was just telling the truth about his immigration experience and the devastation of losing his entire culture during the war. It’s a revelation, not a moral story or an allegory. It’s a literary work of magical realism.”

Discussing the books he once read to his children in their home in Bend, OR, Peterson includes another creator he admires: Dr. Seuss. “His best books are songs that substitute rhythm for melody. You can see his books as having something in common with other musical forms like rap and punk rock. Every parent who’s read Green Eggs and Ham knows that it is a song. It is a masterpiece of rhythmic lyricism.”

Gray Fox in the Moonlight is not as percussive, but each word is like a musical note, and the phrasing is composed mostly for the way it sounds.”

He’s thrilled by the book’s reception. “I was overjoyed to see reviewers talking about the things I was interested in. They mentioned stripped-down language that conveys emotion, and musical phrasing,” he says. “The book is weird in the current world of children’s books. It doesn’t teach a lesson. I was ecstatic reviewers were talking about the same thing.”

Peterson is considering a sequel, but it will not be set in winter. “One of the kits will be just running wild in the spring. I am working on a new inking style which is kind of splashy and out of control and a dense, energetic writing style.” He pauses. “I want to show how joyous and rampant life is in the spring.”

Kimberly Olson Fakih is the senior picture books editor at SLJ .

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