“The scent is my boy’s. Have you seen him? Pax shared the most important features of his human–the naked round ears; the towering legs, so improbably long that Pax always feared he would topple over when he ran; the black curled hair that grew to different lengths, then became short again.”
–Pax, by Sara Pennypacker. Illustrated by John Klassen.
I’ve loved John Klassen’s illustrations ever since reading I Want My Hat Back a few years ago, and I bought Pax immediately when I saw that he was the illustrator. Pax is a children’s chapter book, and tells the story of a boy named Peter and his pet fox, Pax, who become separated while the humans around them prepare for war. The story alternates viewpoints as Pax and Peter find allies and avoid capture in their quest to reunite. Pax’s narration reminded me of nature writer Jean Craighead George’s incredible book Julie’s Wolf Pack, which was told from the point of view of wolves. Pax’s story is likewise a fascinating blend of zoology and imagination, with many words extemporized from the flash of a tail or a lift of a paw, and a little ESP thrown in.
Peter, meanwhile, runs away in an attempt to find Pax, a choice that strikes deep with any child whose values have been brushed aside in the name of family practicality. He has to come to terms with his grief for his dead mother and his fear of becoming like his father before he can find his own identity and have his coming-of-age moment in the spotlight.
The setting, which feels very much like an American midwest on the verge of foreign invasion, is unnerving and dystopian, and serves as a strange, somewhat forced backdrop for a story set firmly in the boy-and-his-dog genre. The author seems to be reaching for a profound statement about the difference between humans and animals, or perhaps about the similarities between children and animals, but she doesn’t quite get there. This book had none of the resonating sadness of others of its kind (Where the Red Fern Grows, for example), and less of the page-turning adventure, too. Peter spends a long portion of the middle of the book trapped indoors learning valuable lessons, while Pax wanders in circles trying to figure out how to eat. There is none of the boy v. nature struggle that made Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain riveting, and the only reason I can think of why Pax would be a fox instead of a dog is so he doesn’t have to die at the end as is traditional (or because foxes are trendy and will sell novels). One feels like the war, too, was just dropped in to give the book some intensity and moral depth, but it wasn’t really necessary to the essential story. I think she could have cut this down to a picture-book length and had a good story, but in chapter-book form it needed a bit more happening.