As an almost-adult, my experience with children’s literature has become fairly predictable: pick up a book, finish it in two hours (three max), and move on to the next one. At the most, it takes me two sittings to get to the final chapter. Pax, however, is not a normal children’s book. I recognized this when I started crying on the third page, and then again when I called my mother at the end of the first chapter, still in tears.
Written by Sarah Pennypacker and illustrated by Caldecott-winning Jon Klassen, Pax tells the story of a fox and his boy separated by war and their journey to find each other. Peter (the boy) is sent to live with his grandfather with the instructions, “You stay out of the way…He’s not used to having a kid around” while his dad joins the army. He must send his fox (Pax) away because his grandfather “can’t have that fox underfoot. He doesn’t move as fast as he used to.” Also Peter’s mom is dead. Oh, and Pax was found abandoned in a den with his three dead littermates. Had enough? This is all revealed in the first 30 pages.
If it is not already clear, the usual guidelines for reading children’s literature do not apply to this book; it must be digested slowly and with care for risk of the heart exploding with emotion. The point of view of the story alternates by chapter. The reader sees the action unfold through Pax’s eyes as well as through the eyes of Peter, and accompanies both characters as they learn about themselves and their world. The book is recommended for ages 10-14, but readers of all ages will recognize the “anxiety snake” that tightens around Peter’s chest when he thinks of Pax, or the yearning that Pax feels for home after spending the night in the wilderness.
All of this is not to say that the book is an unreadable thicket of sadness and depression. On the contrary, it is full of happy memories, love, and humor. An author’s note in the beginning reads, “Fox communication is a complex system of vocalization, gesture, scent, and expression. The ‘dialogue’ in italics in Pax’s chapters attempts to translate their eloquent language.” It is unclear what Pennypacker means until the reader watches as Pax encounters two of his own kind. A vixen stands with her ears and tail erect, meaning “I hunt here,” while her little brother meets Pax announcing, “Friendly…Play!” The foxes are not talking in the usual sense; rather Pennypacker is interpreting their body movements and sounds. This serves to add to the wonder that permeates the entire book.
Along with Pennypacker’s eloquent prose and breathtaking descriptions, Klassen’s illustrations add to the book’s mystique. Drawn beautifully in black and white with the same texture found in his other books, his drawings elaborate on the timelessness and any-town-feel found in Pennypacker’s writing. The book cover is breathtaking, and enough to draw any animal-lover’s attention.
While I myself have not yet read past the first 50 pages (my mom said to take it easy,) I already know that the reviews for Pax hold true. Katherine Applegate, author of The One and Only Ivan, writes, “Searingly honest and heartbreakingly lovely, Pax is, quite simply, a masterpiece.” Kirkus Reviews calls it “moving and poetic,” and The New York Times Book Review states, “Pax the book is like Pax the fox: half wild and wholly beautiful.” As a children’s literature lover and amateur critic, I have no hesitation in telling readers to keep an eye on Pax when the 2017 Newbery awards start being discussed. Hopefully I’ll have finished it by then.
Allia Calkins (2016)