Sara Pennypacker, acclaimed author of the popular “Clementine” series (Disney-Hyperion), is best known for crafting lovable characters, relatable drama, and laugh-out-loud moments. Her forthcoming middle grade novel, Pax (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, Feb. 2, 2016), is a step in a new—and much darker—direction. The tale of a boy named Peter and his tame pet fox, Pax, who are separated and struggle to find their way back to each other in the midst of a war, has already earned four starred reviews, including one from SLJ, in which we called it “a startling work of fiction that should be read—and discussed—by children and adults alike.” Children’s literature gurus from Betsy Bird to John Schumacher to K.T. Horning have praised the work for its visceral storytelling, complex themes, and artful narrative. Pennypacker caught up with SLJ to chat about this deeply moving story, her research and writing process, and how this book has forever changed her relationship with foxes.
This is a tale of friendship and love, but it’s also very much a story about war and the destruction and violence of human conflict—and those most vulnerable to that violence. What sparked this story in you? What made you want to explore this topic for middle grade readers?
For a long time, I’d wanted to write about the injustice of adults committing wars and children paying for them, but I never felt strong enough to tackle such a heavy subject. It was the other side of the book—the relationship between Peter and Pax, which represents the amazing bonds that children can form with animals—that made writing it possible. I’m careful not to take a position in Pax, but I do pose the question “What does war cost?” Middle graders are the perfect audience—they are passionate about books, passionate about justice, and just opening up to the big questions in the world.
Peter and Pax’s story is set in an undefined time and place—it could be the past or modern day or the near future. It might take place in America but not necessarily. Why did you set your story against this type of backdrop?
I didn’t want to allow readers the comfort of seeing the setting as “another”: another place or another time. My goal was to have readers feel that what happens in the book could happen in their town tomorrow. Because, sadly, it could.
Peter’s best friend, whom he must leave behind in the heartbreaking first scene, is a tame fox. Why a fox? Did you always know it would be a fox, or were there other animals you considered?
Early on, I auditioned several animals for the role! Once I decided the book would be realistic instead of allegorical, the field was narrowed to only those wild animals that could be tamed and that shared certain characteristics with humans—foxes are extremely smart, and they’re loyal, social, and playful. As a plus, they behave in some ways like dogs and in some ways like cats, which makes them relatable to kids.
Did you do a lot of research on the behavior of foxes? Did you discover anything interesting or surprising?
I did do a lot of research—what amazing creatures! They are so adaptable that they thrive on every continent except Antarctica, in both cities and wilderness. The most interesting thing I learned was that foxes are the only animals that actually become smarter through the process of domestication. All others—dogs, cows, sheep, etc.—lose intelligence. The more I learned about them, the more respectful I became, and that led me to ask a red fox expert to read the manuscript to make sure the behavior is correct.
The plot is well structured. It feels almost Shakespearean. What was your process like? Did you outline the major aspects? Did you start with character? Did you always know how things would end?
You’re right—Pax is tightly structured along the classic Hero’s Journey, the three-act structure, more than any other book I’ve written. First of all, because it is a journey story. But mostly because of the dual narrative—I feared getting off-track with the expanded territory two stories naturally could cover, so I plotted tightly and ruthlessly cut any scenes that strayed. I also did it because an underlying theme of the book is that all creatures on Earth are journeying on paths that parallel or intersect each other. We all encounter similar challenges and experiences; we are not isolated. “Two but not two,” as Vola explains it.
The book began with character—it was always going to be a sentient animal commenting on human war. In the beginning, though, Peter didn’t have his own narrative—he was merely going to be “the boy” who belonged to my main character. But I saw such richness in inviting him to tell his side that halfway through writing Pax, I opened the book up.
The ending was set early on. I was walking in the woods, and it just came to me in a bolt: the ending image needed to be the same as the image that set the plot in motion—although it would have a completely different meaning for both Pax and Peter the second time and would show how each character had grown.
This book has haunted me. After reading the last line, I shut the cover and cried for a bit. Then I turned it over and started reading again. I find myself wondering about Peter and Pax and Vola. Do your characters haunt you? Do you ever talk to them once a book is completed?
Oh, thank you so much for telling me this! It’s exactly the reader response I want, and I tried many endings to get to a place that leaves you wondering what happens in the following minutes and in the following months and years. When I wrote the ending from Pax’s point of view, by the way, it made me cry too much—Pax is experienced enough to now understand that his boy might be “false-acting” when he throws that toy the last time. That inevitable loss of innocence was heartbreaking to me, so I actually chose the softer ending!
Yes, the characters do stay with me. For one thing, the very same things are happening all over the world, every day, to children wherever there is war. Every time I read the news, I personalize the facts with Peter and Vola and Pax. And of course these characters have a certain reality for me as an author. Pax is the one I wish I could talk to—now, whenever I see a fox, I try to engage by stopping in my tracks and looking directly at it, trying to project some kind of empathy. It feels like a valuable thing to do.
Luckily, I know that all of the characters go on to live the lives they were meant to have, but could not have achieved that if they hadn’t intersected with one another.
When you get a chance to read, what do you enjoy? Are there any recent books you’d recommend?
I love fiction. On my bedside table there are usually both an adult title and a middle grade novel. But recommending titles is too hard—I’ll give you the answer I gave the readers who asked me that at a school visit yesterday: The book I love best is the one I’m in the middle of, and that changes weekly.