“Kadir Nelson once said that he was compelled to make beautiful what had been ugly,” said Sara Pennypacker, whose next middle grade novel, Pax, Journey Home (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) will be released this September. “Other people want to fix what has been broken. For me, I have to write a book that makes something that was unjust, just.”
Pax, Journey Home resumes the story begun in her 2016 bestselling release, Pax, which has sold more than 900,000 copies to date: Peter, the motherless son of a soldier, rescues an orphaned red fox and keeps him as a pet until his father forces him to abandon Pax in the woods five years later. Peter’s father then goes off to war and Peter is sent to live with his grandfather 300 miles away, but soon runs away from his new home in search of his beloved Pax. Meanwhile, Pax encounters a skulk of foxes, who teach him how to survive in the wild. The tale alternates between the boy and the fox’s perspectives.
Pennypacker said that she received “a ton of letters” from readers wanting to know what happened after Peter and Pax are reunited in the novel’s closing pages. Calling the conclusion of Pax “a great ending,” Pennypacker said that she initially resisted writing a sequel because she wanted readers to feel “that the right thing happened” to Peter and Pax. “If your emotional investment was to get Peter and Pax back together again, you can imagine that. If it was to know that they both went on and became who they were supposed to be, I left room for that.”
After her agent, Steven Malk, informed her that he too was receiving letters from readers wanting to know what happens next to Peter and Pax, Pennypacker recalled that, “for some reason” she responded, “Of course I know what happens.” She then wove a tale for Malk narrating what happened to Pax after he left Peter to rejoin his four-legged companions. “I went on and on in great detail. I then realized I had just given him an entire plot summary of a novel.”
Although Pennypacker swore Malk to secrecy, he called her a short time later to confess that he had just gotten off the phone with her editor, Donna Bray. Pennypacker remembers Malk telling her, “I hope it’s okay but I couldn’t help myself. I told your editor and she would like a phone call.”
In Pax, Journey Home, Peter, who is mourning his losses while grappling with feelings of guilt and alienation, embarks upon a journey back to his home with two military veterans who are part of a community calling themselves Water Warriors who are working to heal the land from the scars of war. Meanwhile, Pax mates with Bristle and becomes a father. When one of his kits becomes disabled after drinking poisoned water, Pax searches out Peter to obtain his help in saving the kit from certain death in the wild.
“The most important thing for me to say about Pax 2 is that I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to get to be a fox again,” Pennypacker said, explaining that she was able to write from Pax’s perspective after realizing that an essential difference between animals and humans is that animals lack introspection. She wrote from Pax’s point of view, she said, “as if I am a human who is not neurotic and not self-reflective. Everything that happens, I am not going to process it through how others are going to think of me.”
As with Pax, Pennypacker’s impetus for writing Pax, Journey Home was to spotlight injustice. “I really feel that the things that happen to children and animals during war,” she said, “we never take them into account. They’re not part of the calculus for those in charge who decide to go to war. How many foxes will be killed? We never do any of those kinds of calculations. It doesn’t seem fair to me.”
But Pennypacker also wanted to emphasize the bonds that emerge among those from different backgrounds who come together to fight against a common enemy.
“It feels really good to be in a brotherhood, or sisterhood,” she explained of her research into the military community, “And it’s really important to a lot of people to know they’re valued, where they’re contributing to an incredibly important cause. I wanted to say something about that.” As for the Water Warriors, she added, “They use all the good parts about the military—the machinery, the organization, the manpower, the ability to work together and be a team—for a much better cause.”
Pennypacker also strived in Pax, Journey Home to address a topic that isn’t usually addressed in children’s books, as typically, the main character in a children’s book is a child: the experience of parenthood. “I have a character of reproductive age,” she said, “That’s a pretty rare thing in a children’s book and I wanted to go there.” She hopes, she said, that Pax’s love for his kits and the sacrifices he makes to protect the runt of his litter will “give kids some insight into how their parents feel about them—or should feel about them.”
Impressionistic Cover Art Sets the Mood
Jon Klassen, who created the cover art and illustrated the interior of Pax, also drew the cover art for Pax, Journey Home and will produce the interior illustrations. Whereas Pax’s cover portrayed a fox gazing over the land as the sun rises (or sets), its sequel portrays a fox and his kit looking out over another landscape, this one bounded by rivers. Although the sun shines, there are menacing storm clouds above the orb.
“The trick became,” Klassen said, “how do we make it look very different or at least different from a distance but still look like a set?” He pointed out that his perception was that Pax, Journey Home was “a little darker” than Pax, “due to everyone’s mood and what Peter was going through. And then there was this rain and everything that was going on with water.” Thus, Klassen added the storm clouds, to create the ambiance and a sense that “there’s an emotional storm coming for everybody in this book.”
Klassen added that, because Pennypacker is so precise in her writing, “you know where everything is, how everything feels,” thus freeing him to create impressionistic cover art for both books, explaining, “She goes into such detail in the text, I didn’t feel the need to establish anything literal on the covers as far as what rivers we’re talking about or where things are geographically, or even what the characters look like from the front.” In fact, he confessed, when he tried to draw Pax and his kit facing forward, the effect was “cartoony.” Facing the foxes looking away from the reader worked best, he noted, saying, “It’s mysterious that way but also helps stylistically.”
As for Pennypacker’s reactions to the new cover art, “I didn’t think it could be done but it’s more beautiful, even more evocative than the first,” she told PW.” The first cover was just amazing. This one is even more so.”
After writing such an intense novel, it should come as no surprise that Pennypacker is stepping back and is now working on what may be “the most humorous of all the books I’ve ever written,” categorizing it as “in between a chapter book and novel.” Describing it as "outrageous and funny," Pennypacker said that it’s also highly topical. “It has a lot to say about folks who worship money and power. It may be a bit pointed, I don’t know. Mostly, it’s just hilarious. My writing group told me I am no longer allowed to write serious books—they prefer this.”
Pax, Journey Home by Sara Pennypacker. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, 17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-06-293034-7