Written by Sara Pennypacker
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Published by Balzer + Bray, 2016
When I first read the synopsis of Pax I was all at once intrigued and cautious… The concept (and its inherent simplicity) leaves a lot of room for disaster, and I had some concern that I was about to dive into a pool of trite cutesy nonsense. Said risky story involves 12 year old Peter, who has a pet fox named Pax; when Peter’s father enlists in the Army and heads off to help with the war effort he arranges for Peter to go stay with his grandfather several hundred miles away. (Peter’s mother is deceased.) Peter’s father also makes plans for Pax, which involve taking him out to the woods, throwing his favourite toy into the trees and driving away when the fox runs to fetch it. Goodbye Pax.
Peter, of course is heartbroken, as is Pax.
From here the two disunited friends must embark upon individual journeys to find each other, for without the other neither is whole.
And this is where things could get messy: The stories are told in chapters with alternating protagonists, first Peter and then Pax. The Peter chapters are straightforward enough, but an adventure focussing on a fox in search of his missing boy? That has fromage written all over it. Pennypacker’s previous work -a handful of Flat Stanley adventures, the Clementine series, Waylon and some picture books- is all solid, if comparatively a little light. It’s very good and entertaining, but not exactly a body of work that would make you think “This is a writer with an innate ability to examine the loneliness and existential dread we all carry with us in our heart of hearts.”
Imagine my delight, then, in discovering that Sara Pennypacker is one fantastic writer. In fact, she writes the hell out of this story. It would not be a stretch to say that she is a writer with an innate ability to examine the loneliness and existential dread we all carry with us in our heart of hearts.
It’s kind of like Radiohead… They released a couple of really good but perhaps unspectacular albums, and then they dropped OK Computer out of nowhere, and everybody was like “Where the heck did that come from?” Pax is Pennypacker’s OK Computer: A masterpiece.
Following Peter, we meet Vola, an amputee veteran who takes the boy in when he gets injured, much to both of their chagrins. Pax, reeking as he does of human, is distrusted by the other foxes. He’s never had to hunt for food before, and his natural instincts for undomesticated survival are dull, to say the least.
Smartly, Pennypacker does not try to employ varying narrative techniques based on the protagonists, save for a touch of mysticism in the way the foxes converse, so the book has a wonderful cohesion. The story is simple and unadorned with superfluous details or twists… This is plain good writing. Meat and potatoes stuff. Forget showing off and simply write, all for the sake of the story.
About fifty pages in, my wife happened by and asked “How is it?”
“Remarkable,” I answered. By page seventy-five I was saying to her “You need to read this book when I’m finished.”
There are nice illustrations, from Jon Klassen; they are much better than his that graced Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest last year, which -no fault of the artist- suffered from poor transfers and looked muddy in publication. The pictures here are not necessary, unfortunately; there aren’t many of them, and the text certainly doesn’t need the support. I suspect the publisher just wanted the added attention from his name for a book this good, and who can blame them? (The cover art and design is phenomenal.) They don’t detract from the story, certainly, and if they attract a few more eyeballs to this wonderful book, why not?
Pax is a middle grade novel, by categorization, but this is a case where that designation is meaningless. This is a book for everyone, and my bet is you’d be hard-pressed over the coming eleven months to find a book better than this directed at any age group.
An early contender for book of the year, and one that sets the bar unreasonably high for the competition. Essential.
Kinderlit requested and received a copy of Pax in exchange for an honest review. Read more about our Review Policy HERE.