“Deer Reeder: First may I say, sorry for any werds I spel rong,” begins the new story by George Saunders, published as a diminutive stand-alone book with illustrations by Chelsea Cardinal. No, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of “Lincoln in the Bardo” and “Tenth of December” has not been struck with dyslexia or deactivated his spell-checker. “Fox 8” is narrated by the titular creature, who has learned “Yuman” language by listening at the window as a mother reads bedtime stories to her children. “They sounded like prety music!” reports the fox. Unfortunately, Fox 8 has learned only the sound of our “werds” — proper spelling eludes him.
Or perhaps fortunately. The idiosyncratic spelling is one of the charms of this slight, sweet, odd fable — one that is not really sophisticated enough for adult readers but is too dark for children. (Kids, though, would love the brazen misspellings — “Bare” for “bear,” “Berd” for “bird,” “Kar” for “car,” and so forth.)
The story, such as it is, concerns Fox 8’s journey in search of food for his band, which takes him and his loyal friend Fox 7 to FoxViewCommons, a newly constructed “Mawl” where rumors of a “Fud Cort” hold hope for the starving foxes. (“What is Bon-Ton, what is Compu-Fun, what is Hooters, what is Kookies-N-Cream?” wonder the animals.) Our narrator is a dreamy, idealistic sort, and what he knows of humans he has learned at the bedroom window, a scene of domestic love sealed with a “gudnite kiss.” It has not prepared Fox 8 for the dangers of crossing the “Par King” or for the cruelties visited upon Fox 7 by a pair of sadistic construction workers they encounter.
Of course, it is not just the intentional harm caused by a pair of individual humans that threatens the foxes; the construction of the mall is what has destroyed their ecosystem and decimated their food supply in the first place. That makes “Fox 8” a timely lesson about environmental stewardship — though one that has been more compellingly delivered in works such as Richard Adams’ “Watership Down” — a classic that has just been adapted as an animated series, now streaming on Netflix.