Of all the books that I read growing up, one of my favorite types to read was what I’ll generally call “animal stories.” James Herriot, Marguerite Henry, Sounder, Julie of the Wolves, Where the Red Fern Grows, Shiloh, My Dog Skip. It wasn’t until I was older that Because of Winn-Dixie was published, but I read and loved it just the same. A few years ago I read The Yearling for the first time, and cried through the last thirty pages or so. There’s just something about the “kid + best friend animal” formula that tugs at my heartstrings (and some of yours too, I bet) in a universal manner.
Into that noble tradition has stepped Sara Pennypacker’s Pax, published earlier this year and featuring illustrations by Jon Klassen. I think this has been one of the year’s most talked-about middle grade books, and for good reason; it’s a moving, well-written story, encompassing all sorts of deeper themes alongside the timeless tale of a boy and his pet. It reminded me of The Yearling most strongly, particularly because both stories feature a wild animal that is typically not found as a pet; in The Yearling it’s the gentle fawn Flag, and here, the titlular character is a fox. Pax has been raised by his boy, Peter, since he was rescued as a young kit in the woods. Peter and Pax are inseparable, until the day when a tearful Peter is forced to trick Pax into a game of fetch in the woods, and then drives away without him. Both fox and boy are heartbroken, in their own ways, but Peter’s father is insistent at the separation. A war is coming; Peter’s dad must go fight, and Peter is sent to live with his grandfather in a small house where Pax would always be “underfoot.” Cue the tears already!
After this heartrending beginning, an Incredible Journey-like quest ensues, with Peter determined to venture through miles of wilderness forest to be reunited with his beloved fox, whom he knows is waiting for him. The chapters alternate between Peter’s perspective and Pax’s. Hearing the fox’s voice is what sets this book apart for me from other “animal stories,” and Pennypacker does it beautifully. There is no real “dialogue” for Pax or the other foxes he encounters, just translated visions and brief thoughts, exchanged through these very intelligent animals’ understanding of smell and movement. (This writing technique also resulted in me spending twenty minutes reading about foxes on Wikipedia…which is not something I would not have predicted would happen this week!)
The deeper themes of the book are also woven in really nicely, and I suspect will make Pax a popular choice for classroom reading and discussion in schools. The nature and purpose of war is a huge issue in the story, affecting every character in a different way and to different extremes. Anger, forgiveness, identity, self-esteem…they’re all in here. Some things, like Peter’s love of baseball, are touched on lightly enough to round out his character but also left me wanting the story to explore more in that direction. At points it felt like some of Peter’s story was sacrificed to make room for Pax’s. But those are minor quibbles, and on the whole, I loved this book. The ending, which I won’t spoil here, is beautiful and sad and triumphant, and, also a bit like The Yearling, touches on the pain of growing up and having to say goodbye to some elements of childhood. But the bond between Peter and Pax, and, really, the ability and deep need that humans have to love and care for things outside ourselves, is what I think Pennypacker excels at expressing. I’m interested to see where this book will stand in the canon of great animal stories in future years. If you or your kids are fans of this genre, I recommend Pax to you as well. (Just don’t forget the Kleenex!)
Featured image by Jon Klassen/HarperCollins.