Targeted at the 8 – 12 year old group, Sara Pennypacker’s latest novel “Pax” is a book that carries universal truths and one that will touch readers of any age. Illustrated by Jon Klassen, the pen and ink drawings contained in the book enhance the story, strengthening the overall impact of the passages associated with each specific drawing.
Set in an unidentified country during an unspecified time, “Pax” serves to remind readers that war and destruction may affect anyone – or anything. Twelve-year old Peter has cared for his pet fox, “Pax”, for five years. Orphaned as a kit, “Pax” is now as domesticated as any wild animal can be; he has never had to survive in the wild. “…distrust is no match for kindness administered consistently and unmeasured …”
Having enlisted in the army, Peter’s father takes his son to live with his grandfather and demands that Peter release “Pax” back into the wild. Knowing Peter would not abandon him “Pax” waits patiently for his return. “…Pax would stay …ignore all temptations …until his boy came for him …” Haunted by his belief he has betrayed “Pax”, Peter leaves his grandfather’s home to recover his pet. A broken leg, an encounter with an amputee-veteran whose unnamed war occurred twenty years previously, and a realization – by both Peter and “Pax” – that each must be true to his own nature creates an emotional, poignant story that will touch your heart.
Writing in the third person voice, Sara Pennypacker alternates the focus of “Pax” between developments affecting Peter and those in which “Pax” learns what it is to be a fox. Each chapter remains true to the focal character. In Peter’s, the reader learns about his life and his past. "…if he could visit the kind-eyed therapist, he’s smash those toy cars …Just to make everybody see …” The reader also watches Peter grow in his understanding of himself and of others. Talking to his benefactor about her war experience, Peter empathizes with her emotional state and begins to formulate a plan that will free her from her self-imposed exile. In Pax’s chapters, the narrative does not humanize the animals but remains realistic when it details the actions and responses to their surroundings. By Sara Pennypacker doing so, those portions of the narrative seems less fictitious and more like an appealing nature documentary. In both characters’ chapters, the horrors and the impact of war overshadow the narrative.
One of Jon Klassen’s drawings, shown on pages 164 and 165, is quite memorable. The shadowing and use of contrasting white ”rain” against the darker background drawing is the strongest in terms of atmosphere and locale.
“Pax” is a novel that will touch your heart. It is suitable for the target age group as well as anyone who loves an outstanding story. I recommend that parents or grandparents read “Pax” before sharing it with younger, advanced readers or with those in the target age group who may be very sensitive.