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Left To Fend For Himself, 'Pax' The Fox Must Find His Human Friend

Feb 10, 2016
Originally published on February 21, 2016 12:06 am

A new novel takes young readers inside the mind of a 5-year-old fox. Abandoned as a kit, Pax is taken in by Peter, a boy whose mother has died. When Peter's dad joins the military, Peter is forced to send Pax into the wild for the first time. The story — set during wartime in an unidentified time and place — is told from both Peter and Pax's perspectives.

While Pax is a particularly bright fox, author Sara Pennypacker says she made an effort not to stray too far from the facts. "I worked with a red fox expert and there's really nothing in it that isn't documented behavior and within their capabilities," Pennypacker tells NPR's Kelly McEvers.

Pennypacker, who is best known for her "Clementine" series, talks about the research she did for this book, the relationship between children and animals, and a mantra that helps her while she writes.


Interview Highlights

On consulting with a fox expert

Matt Walker ... he vetted the book is what he did. I spoke with him a few times in the beginning to get a feeling and he sent me some reference material so I learned what I could learn. Then I wrote the story which travels a very specific path, and there's just no way that you could research and say, "Well how's a fox going to deal with this?" Because I'm making up this stuff. So what he did was he took the book afterward and vetted it, and every time I said, you know, "The fox laid his ears back," or something like that, he would correct me and just make sure that everything is correct.

On foxes listening to and deciphering the calls of crows

I thought [Walker] was going to tell me, "No, they're not going to be able to translate the crows' communication." And in fact that's been proven. In fact, they've been able to translate communication from a dozen different species. They're brilliant. Foxes are so brilliant.

On the relationship between kids and animals

I wanted to, on the one hand, celebrate this extraordinary sense of no boundaries — it's kind of a boundary issue where kids don't realize there are boundaries and I love that! They're right, they're correct! Why can't they love an animal, a wild animal or a pet? Why can't they?

Humans sort of get narrow as they age and I think the older we get, the less we're able to see we can have real relationships with more of life. You know, Vola, one of the characters in the book, calls it "Two but not two," which is a Buddhist idea about non-duality that kids sort of understand better. Like, "Of course I can connect to this wild elephant I just found in the jungle." I can relate on some level to it, and adults don't do that and I wanted to celebrate that.

On the difference between this book and her "Clementine" series

All of my books are different from each other, and in fact, each Clementine book feels very different to me from each other. I feel like every time I start a book I think, "Well now I need to learn to write all over again," because it's so different. ...

I have a sign over my desk, only one, that says, "The story is the boss." It comes from Stephen King's book on writing and for me it's a Zen koan because it just keeps explaining to me what I'm supposed to do, no matter what problem comes up for me. The story is the boss. ... So I always let the story itself tell me how to serve it and what tone is deserved.

On establishing points of view in the book

Many of the things in the book could have been told from either point of view, and every single time I would stop and I'd say, "Nope, this is more poignant, this is better told from the fox," or, "This is better told from Peter's point of view," and sometimes, for the most fun of all, I had something told from both points of view so we can see that mistakes have been made. For instance, the time when Peter has sort of always wondered why his counselor — he went to a grief counselor after his mom died — why she let him walk away ... (she said, "Do you get angry?" and he gets up and walks away).

He's haunted by the fact that he was a little boy and the counselor never came after him. Only Pax is able to tell the reader the counselor came after him; the counselor came into the house begging to see him and the father pushed her away — I was able to tell the story from the fox's point of view.

On what she'll do next

I told myself after Pax I was going to stop, I was not going to go through another novel for a few years. I don't know why, but a new one has come to me — and you can't deny it and say to yourself, "Oh, I won't think about that." I think about it all the time now, how this novel would work.

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SARA PENNYPACKER: There's no way an author can produce tears five pages in.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

And yet, when Sara Pennypacker first read her new novel, "Pax," to kids, that's exactly what happened. The books opens with a 12-year-old boy named Peter in a car with pet fox named Pax. That first scene is told from the perspective of the Fox.

PENNYPACKER: (Reading) The fox felt the car slow before the boy did, as he felt everything first, through the pads of his paws, along his spine, in the sensitive whiskers at his wrists. The boy's anxiety surprised the Fox. Today, the boy lifted his pet and buried his face in the Fox's white rough. It was then that the Fox realized his boy was crying. The boy hadn't shed tears for a very long time, but the Fox remembered, always before he had cried out as if to demand that attention be paid to the curious occurrence of salty water streaming from his eyes. The fox licked at the tears and then grew more confused. There was no scent of blood.

MCEVERS: The boy is crying because he's about to leave Pax in the woods on orders of his father, who's about to go off to war. The boy and the fox have been together for five years. Pax was just weeks old when Peter found him. Both of their mothers had died. Sara Pennypacker has a theory about why this opening scene was devastating to the kids who listened to her read it.

PENNYPACKER: Children who have bonds with animals, who have experienced that, have also experienced the opposite, which is the pain when you cannot communicate with an animal you love. And that was what was going on. These - it was triggering that feeling that I can't tell my pet that I'm leaving him at the vet for a week. I can't say I'm sorry that the shot will hurt - that kind of thing.

MCEVERS: "Pax," the book, is about how the boy and the fox try to find each other again and all the things they learn along the way. The story is told by Peter and Pax. And I asked Pennypacker how she got inside the mind of a fox.

PENNYPACKER: I worked with a red fox expert, and there's really nothing in it that isn't sort of documented behavior and within their capabilities.

MCEVERS: So tell us about that. I mean, who is this is expert? How much time did you spend? How much research did you do?

PENNYPACKER: Matt Walker, he did - for me, he vetted the book, is what he did. I spoke with him a few times in the beginning to get a feeling, and he sent me some reference material. So I learned what I could learn. Then, I write the story, which travels a very specific path, and there's just no way that you could research and say, well, how's a fox going to deal with this, because I'm making up this stuff. So what he did was he took the book afterward and vetted it. And every time I said, you know, the fox laid his ears back or something like that, he would correct me. And he would just make sure that everything is correct.

MCEVERS: Wow. Because there's this - you know, there's this whole time when Pax meets up with wild foxes. And there are all these ways that they communicate. Like, they can immediately smell that he's been in contact with a human. I mean, they're basically communicating with each other almost entirely through scent. I mean, there are all these different things that happen that are communicated by scent. I don't want to give too much away. They lick each other's wounds in very particular ways. They're sort of cheek to cheek sometimes. I mean, is all that science-based, or is there some of it that you had to make up?

PENNYPACKER: The only thing that I would say Matt explained to me really probably wouldn't happen but could is that there were two fox dens who were - they were not related - on the same hillside. I needed that, so some of the foxes needed to live a little closer. But even - one thing, for instance, I really was sure he was going to say, no, that can't happen - the foxes listen to the crows to try and understand what's coming from the west. And I thought he was going to tell me, no, they're not going to be able to translate the crows' communication. And, in fact, he said, oh, yes, that's been proven. In fact, they seem to be able to translate communication from about a dozen different species.

MCEVERS: Wow.

PENNYPACKER: They're brilliant. Foxes are so brilliant.

MCEVERS: There are two heroes is in this book, of course. There's the fox, Pax, and there's also Peter. What did you want to explore about kids and animals and their relationship?

PENNYPACKER: I wanted to, on the one hand, celebrate this extraordinary sense they have. It's a sense of no boundaries, and I love that. They're right. Why can't they love an animal - a wild animal or their pet? And I think the older we get, the less we're able to see that we can have real relationships with more of life, I would say. You know, Vola, one of the characters in the book, calls it two but not two, which is a Buddhist idea about non-duality that kids sort of understand better. Of course I'm connected to this wild elephant I've just found in the jungle. And I can, you know, relate on some level to it. So I wanted to celebrate that.

MCEVERS: Right. Vola says (reading) non-duality - it's about oneness, about how things that seem to be separate are really connected to one another. There are no separations.

And she says that to Peter. You are really well known for your "Clementine" series. How is this different project different from that?

PENNYPACKER: All of my books are different from each other. And, in fact, each "Clementine" book feels very different, to me, from each other. And I feel every single time I start a book that, well, now I have to learn how to write all over again because it's so different. I have a sign over my desk - only one - and it says the story is the boss. It comes from Stephen King's book on writing. And for me, it's a Zen koan because it just keeps explaining to me what I'm supposed to do. No matter what problem comes up for me, the story is the boss.

MCEVERS: In the process, do you have - I don't know if it's, like, easy to explain an example of that - but when you're going one direction and you're like, nope, stop. Stay true to the boss.

PENNYPACKER: Many of the things in the book could've been told by either point of view. And every single time I would stop and I'd say, nope, this is more poignant, this is better told from the fox, or this is better told from Peter's point of view. And sometimes, for the most fun of all, I had something told from both points of view, where we can see that mistakes have been made.

MCEVERS: Oh, yeah.

PENNYPACKER: For instance, the time when Peter has sort of always wondered why his counselor - he went to a grief counselor after his mom died - and why she let him walk away. She said, do you get angry? And he gets up and walks away. And he's haunted by the fact that he was a little boy and the counselor never came after them. Only Pax is able to tell the reader the counselor came after him. The counselor came into the house begging to see him, and the father pushed her away. I was able to tell that story from the Fox's point of view. So that's the kind of thing that - every single thing that happened, I chose to - I chose whose point of view to tell it from.

MCEVERS: Wow, I remember that moment. It's - you know, it's completing the narrative, but a fox is doing it for you.

PENNYPACKER: Yeah, that was fun.

MCEVERS: What's next?

PENNYPACKER: I told myself after "Pax" I was going stop. I was not going to go through another novel for at least a few years. And I don't know why, but a new one has come to me. And you can't deny it. You can't say to yourself, oh, I won't think about that. I think about it all the time now, how this novel would work.

MCEVERS: The story is the boss.

PENNYPACKER: The story is the boss, exactly.

MCEVERS: Sara Pennypacker, thank you so much.

PENNYPACKER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: That's author Sara Pennypacker. Her new novel for middle grade readers is called "Pax." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.