Sara Pennypacker Talks with Roger

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As we learn below, Sara Pennypacker knew she was not going to write a sequel to her 2016 novel Pax. But now, with Pax: Journey Home, she has.

Roger Sutton: The first note that I made in your book was “peach pie,” which protagonist Peter’s (unofficial) guardian Vola makes for him. The feeling of Vola’s house in the middle of the woods, and the little house that Peter is building for himself — it’s like, “This is heaven.” Is that your idea of heaven? I don’t mean theologically.

Sara Pennypacker: No, it’s more about what was ideal to support the story and Vola’s role in it. In the previous book she was much more of a mentor than in this one. And, frankly, the other big reason for the home in the woods is because choosing not to declare a setting, time, or space, meant I had to have something without modern conveniences. It’s easier to take out electricity if they’re trying to hide.

RS: In the first book there’s a war in the background. Now we’re seeing its aftermath. It’s pretty nervy to have a war in a book that nobody knows anything about.

SP: My reasoning was: I’m not interested in war as a subject of my books. I’m interested in how wars affect people who didn’t choose them. I’ve written other books on the subject; in my adult fiction, My Enemy’s Cradle, written under my real name Sara Young and set during World War II, I was much more interested in what happened to a young girl, her decision about getting pregnant, and how war affects people who don’t have any agency. In Pax, I don’t care about the war. There are general things that happen when people in power impose war, and people out of power, or animals, or plants, or an entire planet, have no agency but have to bear the results.

RS: Right, it’s everything. It’s in the water, so to speak, in the second book.

SP: That’s right. I thought about what people could go to war over, and looking at current situations — we are at war over water already. I saw it as a way to — I hope subtly — talk about how much everyone, especially children, needs access to clean water.

RS: That was the theme of our Caldecott winner this year, We Are Water Protectors.

SP: Yes, that's right.

RS: It’s quite beautiful. So if your heart is not in the woods, then what, for you, is the core of the story?

SP: I can’t talk about that without bringing up the previous book. This sequel takes place a year later, and its core, for me, is healing. I needed to talk about what good could come of — I don’t want to say evil. I wanted to be sure not to demean anyone in the military. The military’s not the issue. It’s really important for people to bond over jobs and work together and understand how important the organization is. That’s not what war is about; it’s separate. I wanted to spend a little time looking at how the very equipment of war could be repurposed. I also felt pretty awful about Peter every time I’d think about him. What’s going on? Who’s on his side? Who does he have? Vola’s great, to her limited ability, but he’s got no one else. His grandfather is not there for him. So I wanted, personally, to address those things.

RS: Did you know that there would be a sequel when you wrote the first book?

SP: No, I knew that there would not be a sequel! I was so sure of it. You see it in the choices I made at the end of the book. I left it so that you knew the important thing — Peter makes the hard decision. “My animal is better off in the wild.” But Pax knows it’s a lie. And readers are left wondering: is Pax really better off? And I just ended the book there. Because I figured it would be a hard book for a lot of kids. It was going to cause tears and anguish. So I wanted anyone who was invested in Peter and Pax getting back together again to go figure that out, how that would happen. And for anyone who thinks the characters will be better off apart, to grow into their better selves, I needed those readers to be able to do that.

What happened was, I, of course, got a million letters that said, “But I really want to talk about what happens next.” One day my agent Steven [Malk] got one of those letters, two years after the release of the book, and he called me up and said, “I just have to tell you, this kid is so passionate and really, really wants to talk about the book that comes after.” I laughed and said, “They all do,” and explained why I’d done that intentionally. And then I made a little mistake. I said to him, “But of course I know what happens.” He said, “Oh, really? What do you mean?” For me, as a reader, I know. And I went on to describe the entire second book, basically. There was a bit of silence. I got off the phone and said to my partner, “You know, he’s going to go call Donna Bray [vice president/co-publisher, Balzer + Bray], and he’s going to tell her this. I could call him back right now and say, ‘Don’t do that,’ or I can just sit tight and see what happens.” And two days later, he called and said, “Donna would like to talk to you.” And so we did talk about it. The only reason I came around is that my understanding of the ending of this new book was the crux, I think, for both camps of readers: those who wanted Peter to be reunited with his fox, and those who wanted Pax to be on his own in the wild.

RS: Was there anything in the first book that you regretted in writing the second?

SP: I wish I’d given Vola a little bit more — I just grew to love her more. I’d left the first book without an understanding that Peter’s dad had changed, so it was a tremendous joy for me to be able to write that scene at the very end, where Peter learns that his father really did change, and that he’d helped his father change. I wrote every toxic white male into that man, and I wanted to give him a chance to not be quite so harsh.

RS: With the series you’ve written — on the one hand, you open a second book or a third book, and you’ve got a lot to work with, because you’ve already created the world. But have you also boxed yourself in, in a way?

SP: I completely get that. But with the Clementine or Waylon series, I don’t get boxed in, because they’re character books. In other words, anything could happen to those kids — I’ve always said I could write a book where Clementine just sits in a closet and talks to herself, and that could be fine.

RS: I’m calling Steven with that idea. I think that sounds like fun.

SP: You know what I mean, though. It doesn’t matter what happens. Something big happening, a baby being born, yeah I did have to make room for that. I told Marla [Frazee, Clementine series illustrator] that I don’t want the mom to have a glass of wine in book three, because we reveal she’s pregnant in book five. So sure, a little boxed in. But because Pax was a book about healing from damage, it was okay that I did all that damage. I then had room to heal it.

RS: How did the first book read differently to you when you came to write the second?

SP: It was a lot easier for me to be a fox this time. I struggled with it the whole time while writing the first book. It was a completely new experience. Then I had this epiphany: I kept trying to be the fox while writing a really close third-person. What I finally realized is rather than being the fox, I just needed to be a person who has been abandoned and really loved someone and felt all these feelings. That was very freeing to me. In other words, Pax has motivations. He has feelings. He goes through days without worrying how he looks or how people are perceiving him, without wondering what’s wrong, what happened. So that’s basically how I approached being a fox, and it was quite freeing. Research supports that — everything we’ve learned over the last thirty, forty, fifty years, supports the idea that animals have rich emotional lives. They are much more like us than we’d ever thought. Did you see My Octopus Teacher?

RS: No, but I know about it.

SP: Even octopuses have much richer emotional lives. We’re so proud of ourselves for having them, but we weren’t allowing for them in animals. Now when we look for them, there they are.

RS: Both octopus books and fox books are huge in the picture book market these days.

SP: Are they now? Foxes became big!

RS: Is that true, about how foxes will walk along with you in the woods?

SP: All I know is it’s happened to me. I used to live by a trail, and I’ve had that experience. I’ve also received many letters from adults who have described some version of it. And, you know, it makes sense. We do not threaten foxes. They don’t threaten us. They are extremely intelligent. And foxes are one of the few species on this planet that form relationships outside of their own species, which is what humans do. It’s one of the reasons I chose the fox as my stand-in character, standing in for what happens to humans.

In my neighborhood, there was a female fox who was hit by a car. She had kits—they were a little older than Pax was when his mother was killed — and luckily the father fox was around. So they ended up all right, but we in the neighborhood were keeping track, and lots of times those kits or the dad would engage with you. One walked literally five feet away from where I was sitting on the deck and just kind of looked at me. There was absolutely no threat on either end. I loved that.

RS: That happened to us one Christmas in P-town. We were sitting in the living room having coffee, and then noticed there was a fox on the deck outside looking in at us.

SP: Wow, you’ve had that too! Did the fox startle and run away?

RS: No, it was like it was watching TV or something.

SP: Exactly. There’s a book called Fox and I that recently came out for adults, about a woman who had a relationship with a fox. The fox would come by at the same time, and she decided to read to it every afternoon. They developed a way of being together.

RS: Wow.

SP: The overwhelming sentiment that raises in people, I believe, is a feeling of being chosen, of having risen to some status by the animal deigning to commune with you.

RS: I’m always so proud of myself when a dog that I don’t know comes up to me and is friendly.

SP: There’s something more going on in that situation on the dog’s side.

RS: Like the treats in my pocket.

SP: But when it’s a wild animal, I always feel proud of myself for some weird reason. Yeah, that hawk knew that we could hang out under the same tree. That’s cool.

RS: So, are Pax and Peter going to come back for a third book?

SP: They are absolutely not! This time I know that I’m right because I am so solid and sure on the tracks where I left them. Sliver, the kit, would have died without Peter. With Pax, there was always that question of whether he would have been better off with Peter, but in this case, Sliver would die. And Peter — I don’t know what would have happened to him if he hadn’t seen this proof of what Jade had been talking about, about kindness and needing help and making connections. I’d worry about him. For writers, here’s what’s so hard: you often have to do things to your characters that you could not really do to your own children or any kids. I could not have known Peter in real life without trying to change his course, without saying, “I know how you feel, but you are making a terrible mistake rejecting the possibility of any kind of a relationship or love or risk at all.” But as a children’s author, my job is to respect the mistakes that kids will make: “You’re a human being, you have a will, you’re alive. When you don’t have resources, yeah, you’re probably going to make a mistake.” So I had to allow Peter to make some terrible mistakes.

RS: Well, there’s no story if the character doesn’t make any mistakes.

SP: That’s absolutely true. This one felt like a clear path. He could have gone off and been a really miserable human being. Could have been an awful person, and miserable in his own soul too. But I think I stayed out of it, and I simply reported what happened. I didn’t give readers everything he felt when he made his decision. I just wanted them to see him for a few pages at the end of the book as a different boy, as a boy who was going to make it.

RS: And having affected that change in Peter, where would you go?

SP: Exactly right.

RS: But you’re going to have readers who say, “Why can’t Pax come and visit?” Which would be fine, but that’s a chapter. That’s not a novel.

SP: Absolutely right. And because Pax is now, we know, going to be pretty far away still — it’s possible if you want to go ahead and imagine that happening. That’s fine with me. More and more, as I age or as I grow wiser, I realize that once the book has left the author — I’m the author of one of these stories called Pax: Journey Home. But all of these stories that the kids bring to it — it’s a different story for each kid. And those are important stories, too, not just my story. My job is to give you the framework and to tell you one way of looking at it. But everyone who reads that book is going to come with everything that has happened in their lives, what’s about to happen, certain family situations that they bring to it, and it’s their book too. So I allow them to go figure out what happens. Maybe Pax comes back. Maybe they check on him. That’s okay.

RS: Do you find, in the letters from kids, or talking to kids, that the readers express a caring for one of the characters more than the other, Pax or Peter?

SP: Yes, although it seems to me the emotional feeling goes toward Pax. They can see themselves, but what they’re doing is seeing themselves as someone who would relate to an animal, who would be important to an animal, who would give of themselves to save an animal.

RS: So they see themselves in Peter’s position, and, like him, their empathy goes with Pax.

SP: When you’re writing about foxes, and let me tell you, when you’re writing about baby foxes, half your work is done. All I had to do was have Sliver fall over and start snoring. That’s just golden.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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