Jon Klassen, Illustrator
Balzer & Bray, 2016 288 pgs
Although unspecified, our story appears to be set in near-future America. War rages through the land. Peter's Dad must go and serve in the armed forces. Since Peter's mom is dead, he is sent to live with a cold and unfamiliar grandfather. On the way to Grandfather's house, Peter must set his pet fox, Pax, loose in the woods to fend for himself. Once at Grandfather's house, Peter regrets the decision and runs away to recover his friend. Danger lurks in every corner and soldiers of both sides are everywhere. Peter injures his leg, forcing him to seek aid and shelter from veteran and post traumatic stress sufferer, Vola. The two become friends and help each other to heal and move forward with life. Meanwhile, alternating chapters tell the story of Pax's adventures. He meets up with a family of foxes in the wild and after a tricky adjustment period, they become friends and Pax learns to survive. The horrors of war are experienced more personally by the foxes, who suffer a loss in their ranks and then a devastatingly violent incident, all as a result of the war-sick humans. Both stories come together in the end when the friends are eventually reunited amidst the chaos that is war and the uncertainty of the wild.
Pennypacker offers a drastic departure from the Clementine series with a novel for slightly older children about the realities of war in a way that the intended audience can digest. We experience the mental anguish of war and regret through the story of the humans, Peter and Vola. The physical effects of war are demonstrated through the adventures of Pax and his new fox friends. Pennypacker does not shy away from the violence of war, yet physical losses are experienced through the foxes, somehow distancing the horrors a bit for young children without diminishing the realities. Peter must make some hard decisions and show inner strength and perseverance. He is battling guilt over letting Pax go and sadness at the absence of love from his family. He forms a new family with Vola and the two forge a relationship of mutual healing and understanding. Readers will be very effected by this book and animals lovers especially will read it quickly in order to ensure Pax's survival. The foxes for the most part remain foxes and Pennypacker did her research in creating a realistic environment for them. The only anthropomorphism was that they seemed to talk to each other and Pax had thoughts that were in human terms. This helped to move the plot along and help kids to relate to this story line, so I think it was appropriate. I love that puppets were used as a vehicle towards healing and the friendships that Peter shares with both Pax and Vola are truly moving. Setting the book in what seems to be very soon United States drives the point home that war isn't something that happens to other people far away. Its a universal problem and can arrive at anyone's doorstep. The illustrations by Jon Klassen were characteristically fabulous and his style match perfectly with the dark undertones of the text. A true winner and potential Newbery contender!