I’m going to put it straight out there, this is a fantastic book. I have already said on twitter that Pax is one of the best books that I read last year (It was the best book till I read Raymie Nightingale). I would go so far to say is it should be an instant classic.
Pax is a story about a boy and his pet fox and the unbreakable bond between them. The best children’s stories are little bit dark, and in this book there are whispers of violence, loss and death. Yet the it is also utterly and unashamedly about love and this makes the tale both powerful, emotional and ultimately redemptive. That it does this without resorting to sentimentality is an achievement in itselfThe story is set in the context of an ongoing war which whilst being fictional could at the same time be any historical or contemporary war. Pax, is the story of a 12-year-old boy and his pet fox. It begins with betrayal as the boy’s father forces him to abandon the fox and then takes on a quest structure as the two friends embark on a fraught journey to find each other and make things right.
Elements of the book are not an easy read. Bad things happen and the book doesn’t shy away from them. Pennypacker uses alternate chapters between Peter, a young boy whose father leaves to fight in the war, and his fox Pax, who must learn to adapt in the wild in order to survive.
The chapters written from Pax’s point of view are insightful and provide an animal’s perspective of humans and war. Pennypacker worked with a number of experts on fox’s behaviour and this is evident in how she he helps us understand their world.
While Pax learns to negotiate the complications of surviving in the wild and relating to other foxes. Peter’s epic journey is complicated when he breaks his leg and is forced to rely on Vola an eccentric woman and war veteran fighting her own demons.
Both characters grow tougher and wilder as the story progresses and this really lends the story a coming of age feel. The balance of the chapter structure works wonderfully and drive the narrative forward relentlessly.
Pennypacker’s use of language is dense and complex. ( Upper KS2 teachers it will challenge and then some.) It is also absolutely wonderful. I have included a brief sample just to whet your appetite.
“The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first. Through the pads of his paws, along his spine, in the sensitive whiskers at his wrists. By the vibrations, he learned also that the road had grown coarser. He stretched up from his boy’s lap and sniffed at threads of scent leaking in through the window, which told him they were now traveling into woodlands. The sharp odours of pine — wood, bark, cones, and needles — slivered through the air like blades, but beneath that, the fox recognized softer clover and wild garlic and ferns, and also a hundred things he had never encountered before but that smelled green and urgent.
The boy sensed something now, too. He pulled his pet back to him and gripped his baseball glove more tightly.
The boy’s anxiety surprised the fox. The few times they had traveled in the car before, the boy had been calm or even excited. The fox nudged his muzzle into the glove’s webbing, although he hated the leather smell. His boy always laughed when he did this. He would close the glove around his pet’s head, play-wrestling, and in this way the fox would distract him.
But today the boy lifted his pet and buried his face in the fox’s white ruff, pressing hard.
It was then that the fox realized his boy was crying. He twisted around to study his face to be sure. Yes, crying — although without a sound, something the fox had never known him to do. The boy hadn’t shed tears for a very long time, but the fox remembered: always before he had cried out, as if to demand that attention be paid to the curious occurrence of salty water streaming from his eyes.”
From PAX by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen.
Pax is as much a powerful tale of the costs of war as it is a story of boy and fox, It offers insights into the impact that the barbarity of war has on humans and animals alike. Pax is ultimately a compelling and heartrending coming of age story. I have to say I cried quite a bit.
A special mention must go out to the illustrations by Jon Klassen, award-winning creator of the picture book hat trilogy (I Want My Hat Back, This is Not My Hat, and We Found A Hat…if you haven’t read them, find them and read them now!), his artwork magically captures the tone and feel of the book: charming, homespun and emotional.
There are moments of darkness, loss and the graphic brutal reality of war which for me would place it firmly for Year 6 and Year 7 pupils or older. (10+) I would recommend reading the book before using with a class, then you can make informed judgements about suitability.
Themes :- Friendship, loyalty, pacifism, war, environmentalism, redemption, coming of age