Pax by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Jon Klassen. Balzar + Bray, 2016. 304 pages.
What It Is: Middle grades novel (part talking animal story, part dystopian, part realistic fiction…hard to classify!)
What It’s About: A boy and his pet fox, hitherto inseparable, are abruptly separated. The boy’s father is heading off to war and taking his son to his grandfather’s. Along the way, he forces the boy to release the fox into the wild. And, like all good boy + loyal pet stories, the fox sets out to find his owner.
Oh, wait. Not in this story. This time, Peter sets out to find Pax even though it involves walking hundreds of miles. He breaks his leg on his journey, is rescued by a woman named Vola who rehabs him nicely (both his physical self and his wounded psyche), and finally finds his fox. The backdrop to all of this is the impending war that is taking over the country (and, more specifically, the foxes’ habitat). Pax has been having an adventure of his own, found a new fox family, and is wrestling with what the humans are doing to his “people.”
What Works: The prose is stunning. Every word is aptly placed. Every sentence is powerful. The chapters alternate between Pax’s point of view and Peter’s–and Pennypacker makes it work brilliantly. Pax doesn’t speak; rather, the reader sees his very fox-like thoughts. The pacing is well done for the first 2/3 of the book.
What Doesn’t Work: The setting, the theme, the characters, the ending. An alternate world is fine, but it felt too ill-defined in this story. Are we in America? Are we somewhere else? Is this a historical war? A war in the not-too-distant future? Hmm…. The theme of humans messing up everything, especially in war-time is hard to miss. It kind of hits the reader over the head. The theme itself is not a bad one, as themes go. But it’s heavy-handed in this book and takes away from the delicacy of the foxes’ relationships and Peter’s journey. The characters aren’t bad, they just fade into the background while Pax and war take center stage. I couldn’t even remember Peter’s or Vola’s names! And finally, with all the emotional heft of the prose, the weightiness of the theme, the reader needs more of an ending. I’m fine with open-endings. I can get why Peter ends up where he does. But it still felt a little vague for me.
What I Think/Recommend: There is great discussion material in this book, and the fox angle plus the brave-boy-on-survival-adventure will draw in a wide variety of readers. This is the kind of book teachers love to teach (and they will definitely do so!). The kind of book kids pick up on their own? I don’t know. Stock it in your school/classroom library and see what happens….. It will probably have shiny stickers on it come January, 2017.