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.
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.