I was really hoping that 2016 would be different than 2015 when it came to me and super hyped beloved by the kidlit powers that be MG books. If Pax by Sara Pennypacker is any indication, I'm still going to be one of the minority dissenters. So be it. Honestly, I could write an entire post about the sort of books that get the most attention and promotion from said powers and what that says about the priorities of the kidlit elite, but for today I will stick to my thoughts on this particular book.
Pax is a fox who was rescued as a helpless kit whose family was killed by a boy named Peter. His entire life has been knowing Peter and Peter's care for him. Then one day they drive to a distant place, Peter starts a game of fetch, and then drives off with his father. Leaving Pax alone to fend for himself for the first time ever. Pax is in denial and stays close to the road hoping for Peter's return. But soon the events in the forest and the lives of the other foxes draw him in and he begins to form new ties and learn to be a fox in the wild. Meanwhile, Peter realizes he did a terrible thing following his father's instructions to abandon Pax. He sets off to find him despite the distance separating them and the looming war that has him now living with his grandfather while his father volunteers to serve in the military. Injured in his journey, Peter is taken in by Vola, a lonely hermit woman who is an injured veteran of a war herself. They help each other get back on their feet before Peter sets back out to reunite with his fox.
Let me say this first: The sentence level writing of this book is remarkable. The language, imagery, and sentence structure is beautiful. If we wanted to laude books solely on how poetic they are, I would be throwing the world's biggest party for this one. But that's not why I read books. It's always a nice plus, but it's not enough to make me love a book on its own.
Regular readers of this blog know that I don't go in for animal stories much. My dislike of them is, however, proportionate to how much the animals are acting like humans. This is not the case here. The foxes are very much foxes. I loved the foxes. In fact, if this book had been all about the foxes my feelings would be very different. Pax learning to hunt and succeeding. My heart. His relationship with all the other foxes and how he begins to take care of them. My heart. The fox community and the way the human incursion is impacting them is so well done. The foxes are real characters you can feel for. The themes of broken humanity and its affect on everything shown through their eyes are subtilely rendered.
The humans ruin everything.
This is funny because that is literally the theme of the book, but for me the human characters ruined the book. Peter is as flat a character as you can find. He is a prop. Vola swoops in to teach him things, but ends up needing him just as much. She imparts wisdom. He teaches her to live again. Sound heartwarming? It possibly could have been if their chapters weren't filled with rambling dialogue intended to whack the reader upside the head with the moral of the story. Enough already. I got it. Humans suck. War sucks. The military is Evil. I. Got. It. Already. All subtlety and nuance were tossed out the window in these chapters. The book's pacing also takes a hit as these chapters are longer (or perhaps just feet longer?), and I kept wanting them to stop talking and get back to the foxes. It was a very strange position for me to be in. Character matters to me more than any other part of a book though. This book failed on every level with human characters. I have some issues with the relationship dynamics here too. One thing I have to amusedly appreciate about this section is how much Pennypacker was able to put the word "damned" into a book for children merely by using the Haitian-Creole form of the word.
The end of the book is annoying as well. There is a certain amount of closure to both personal journeys of fox and boy, but one can not ignore the fact they are both still in the middle of an area about to erupt into a full out military battle. (Peter will probably be fine. My expectations for the foxes are less hopeful. Sadly I'm more invested in their welfare.) The book's setting is completely undefined, however it has a very dystopian feel to it. There are enough hints to know it is in a future North America. A war is about to be fought with the "west" over a lack of water. (It's definitely North America because coyotes play an integral part in the plot.) I'm not giving this a genre tag as a result. It's not contemporary or historical. I can't label it sci-fi despite the future aspect because it's not really sci-fi. And yes, this was frustrating and distracting to me for a good 1/3 of the book. Being confused about where/when I am in a story distracts from my being able to lose myself in the story. That combined with how bored and annoyed I was by Peter's chapters left me more than a little underwhelmed overall.
My experience reading Pax was eerily similar to my experience watching the Pixar movie Wall-E. It is the same story and themes, but with foxes instead of robots. (Pax is Wall-E. Bristle is Eve. Exactly.) Do you know how many kids I know who actually enjoy Wall-E? It's a small list. So who is this book for? To me it feels very much like one of those books adults want to give to kids so they will Learn an Important Lesson about life. Could it win the 2017 Newbery? Absolutely. I think that is the very reason it was published. There are some books I read, and automatically think, "This is medal bait." That is a far cry from me reading a book and thinking, "This deserves a medal." For me this goes squarely in the former category.
I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Balzer & Bray, via Edelweiss. Pax is on sale now.