It’s time for another buddy read discussion! This time it is with the lovely Jenna from BookmarkYourThoughts. Be sure to check out her blog. Her reviews are insightful and entertaining.
We read the middle grade fantasy, Pax, by Sara Pennypacker.
Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.
Q1. Is there any character or something more you wished to hear from in “Pax” (i.e. story, family dynamics, etc.)?
Iseult: The book ended so abruptly that I wondered if there was going to be a sequel. I would have liked to know what happened to Peter and Pax, and where they ended up. The book started with such a great description of a bond between a human and an animal, that I was disappointed that this seemed to lessen in importance as the story progressed. I understand that Pax could be seen as standing for peace and nature, and the gulf that grows between humanity and such things as a child grows up, but this doesn’t have to be the case and, especially in a children’s book, I would like a more hopeful take away.
There was also a lot left open with Peter and his family situation, and while I didn’t expect every thread to be tied up, I would have liked some more resolution. Did he return to his grandfather? Did Vola continue to be part of his life? Did his whole mission come to nothing? I like to work at piecing things together as a reader, not have to write the ending.
Jenna: I’m with Iseult on this … that ending .. WHAT WAS THAT?! To be frank, I kind of wanted more of everything. I felt like a lot of things were introduced but left open-ended. What was the importance of what Peter discovered of his dad’s past at his grandfather’s? What happened after the events of the ending? Do Vola and Peter reconnect? There was just so many things left ajar … too much more my comfort.
Q2. What valuable lessons and themes does Pax explore? Keeping these in mind, do you think this would be an appropriate book to use as a teaching tool in elementary and/or secondary schools? Explain.
Iseult: This book is overloaded with valuable themes! There is Peter’s grief at losing his mother. The difficult relationship Peter has with his father and grandfather, and his fear of inheriting their anger. There is Vola’s PTSD, her way of dealing with it and the power of creativity. Our actions, their repercussions, and how (or if) we seek redemption is a major theme with all the characters.
However, the overriding theme seems to be that war is bad, whether it is against other humans, nature or ourselves, and that is always a good lesson.
As a child I would have disliked this book because of its ambiguity, but I can see how this would spark a lot of discussion in a school setting. I think it could lead to a lot of valuable work with middle and high school children. Any, or all, of the themes I’ve listed above could be explored, and the students could be split up to debate the value of each argument, or to speak from the side of the humans or the foxes.
Jenna: There’s so much touched upon in Pax — I feel as though that’s what saved this book for me, all the beautiful and heart-wrenching topics and life lessons Pennypacker explores. Learning to discover who we are in this grand world, determining our own fates, caring for the environment, coping with PTSD, the destruction of war on not only people but the environment … this list honestly goes on forever.
It’s also a great book for children in my personal opinion. The events that occur aren’t described too graphically, yet strong enough to drive home the message. There’s also quite a bit to open up discussions for both elementary and secondary aged students … even older than that if one wished.
Q3. How did the undefined time and place of the setting effect your enjoyment of Pax?
Iseult: At first this really annoyed me, because I kept trying to imagine the world with reference to the real world, and there were too many idiosyncrasies to make it work. However, thinking about it more, I realize this is actually a fairy tale, and in that sense, the nebulous Everyman setting of the world suits the themes.
Jenna: Iseult and I are basically on the same point here. At first, it REALLY annoyed me at first. I like to visualize books when I read them, so the lack of this information made it kind of difficult. But after a while, it didn’t really bother me — the time and place didn’t really need to be identified to convey the meaning behind the story. If anything, having a lack of setting actually made this book more universal in my opinion — there’s no bias towards one country or place or ethnic background … this book is for everyone.
Q4. Vola carves magnificent puppets that she keeps in her shed. What do you think is the significance of her puppet show? Would you go to see her performance?
Iseult: I loved her puppets! I think the puppets were an important element of Vola’s quest for redemption, but I think it also shows the importance of creativity in overcoming trauma. There is power in stories, and I think this is the almost meta message of her puppet show.
I’d love to see her perform it in her barn. The idea of the Roc puppet fascinates me.
Jenna: It’s kind of explained in the novel, so I’m not going to dive into that part. Basically, it’s a way for her to cope with the horrors she’s experienced and seen in her life. But like Iseult said, it’s like a creative therapeutic outlet. There’s a LOT of studies showing that using the more creative side of the brain can really help with PTSD and other mental health issues. From painting to photography, there’s so many ways to explore a creative outlet.
I’m not going to lie … the puppets freaked me out at first; I’ve seen too many scary movies with dolls and puppets. But after I discovered the meaning behind them, I really started to like this element of the story. I’d probably see a play or two.
Thank you so much, Jenna. It turned out to be a very different book than I thought it would be, and I loved discussing it with you. I hope you’ll do another buddy read with me in the future.
If you would like to do a buddy read with me, or you have an idea for a post or story collaboration, shout out in the comments or send me an email through my contact page.