The last time I read middle-grade fiction I was in elementary school. I loved it then, and it turns out I love it now. Reading children’s books is eye-opening; as an adult and parent, it’s more clear than ever that young readers continually encounter lessons about recognizing, naming, and handling emotions without any awareness of the larger learning process at work. Regarding that process, Pax by Sara Pennypacker is an exemplary teaching tool, not to mention a great story.
“The fox felt the car slow down before the boy did, as he felt everything first.”
So begins Pax. Told from the perspectives of Peter and his fox, Pax, this story dives into complicated issues like loss, anger, acceptance, and forgiveness in a way that is both engaging and educational.
After his father enlists in the army, Peter is forced to return Pax, a fox that he rescued as a kit, to the wilderness. Pax has been Peter’s constant companion for the five years since the death of his mother. Their devotion to each other is moving. The fox feels emotions with his senses, naming them immediately without completely understanding their complexity. His entire life has been about keeping Peter happy. When Peter is hurt or lonely, Pax understands and tries to divert his attention and to make him smile.
Pennypacker uses Pax’s tenderness to demonstrate the need for respect and preservation of the environment. But more than that, Pax’s ability to process emotions stands in stark contrast to Peter’s emotional turmoil. His father is consumed by anger, and Peter works against his own anger every day, usually denying that it exists. He feels responsible for his mother’s death, and now he is disgusted by himself for giving in to his father and abandoning his friend. He decides to run away from his grandfather’s house, traverse three hundred miles of countryside, and save Pax.
Peter’s journey is told alongside Pax’s fight for survival in a wilderness that is completely foreign to him. Both survive only through the kindness and acceptance of strangers they meet along the way.
I can’t say enough good things about this book and Pennypacker’s grace in dealing with heavy topics. There are moments of violence and death - just as there are in our own lives - but Peter and Pax persevere in ways that teach every reader, no matter their age, to work hard, accept help, continue learning, and find hope through love and acceptance.