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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal


img_5640-4PAX has already figured prominently in our discussions on previous threads. Since I get the feeling it’s one of those books we’ll have a running conversation about all season long, I’m not going to present a comprehensive treatment of the book here but rather explore some of the issues that have already been raised, tossing in some scattered thoughts for good measure.

I think I read PAX over a year ago, so I’ll need to reread it to get clarity on how well it fits the Newbery criteria.  When it came out in February, it was hard to imagine it not having at least a silver sticker, but my general sense now is that there is a solid group of a half dozen middle grade novels that lead the pack.  Rereading can temper one’s initial excitement, can separate the hype from the reality, and can help one find those finer nuances that determine a pecking order in a strong group of contenders.

I haven’t read SOME KIND OF COURAGE yet, but there was some initial comparison of this title and PAX on the NBA Longlist thread, and Mr. H, Eric, and Leonard were especially engaged in unpacking issues around presentation for a child audience.

Then, too, when I read I read Alys’s comment on THE WILD ROBOT about finding the animal characterizations lacking because of the balance of wild and anthropomorphic traits, I wondered what we might say about the animals here.  Both books strike me as having a fable-like quality, and I’d love to tease out more discussion about the themes of these respective books.

Setting is the final point I’ll mention.  Roger liked it, comparing it to what Margo Lanagan does. Others once again questioned its presentation for a child audience.

Where do you stand on the book?




Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. As with Maybe A Fox, I had a strong preference for one of the two stories being presented. This caused me to rush through (and at some points feel resentment toward) the story that was being kept from me (in this case, Pax’s story). I think not knowing the specifics of the setting is something that bothers adults more than kids.

  2. I think I might be in the minority here, but the biggest distinction for me about PAX was the world. I loved the lack of context or understanding of war. In many ways, I think it was an intentional mirror of Peter’s world: he’s lost his mother (physically), he’s lost his father (emotionally), he’s lost his pet (both physically and emotionally), so he just feels lost. So his world is also lost: he doesn’t understand his world, so why should we? War similarly makes you feel lost. It is entirely possible that I’m just over-analyzing, but by not casting the war as something well-defined (that is, a particular war in a particular location), we are also lost.

    Having said that, I wasn’t wowed by the book. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. I particularly enjoyed Pax’s fox-ness (as opposed to the cutesy animals in ROBOT) and the ending was perfect. Could it have ended any other way? I don’t think so. But Peter’s portions were a drag and there were too many issues shoe-horned into the larger narrative.

    Do I think it’s a strong contender for the Medal? Not really. And I don’t really think it’s Honor material. It’s a good book and my students love it (I have a feeling it will win our Mock Newbery), but it begins and ends with that.

  3. I thought Pax had good and bad points, but it’s not distinguished to me. I don’t particularly like books about animals behave anthropomorphically, but I found the fox’s story stronger than the boy’s story. I felt the lack of world building was odd and confusing, and I also didn’t care for the plot line involving the woman the boy comes across and stays with for a period of time. I think it does have a fable quality, which I didn’t notice until reading a comment above, but I still found the story rather thin.

    • When comparing this to THE WILD ROBOT, which was over-the-top anthropomorphic, I thought the fox chapters were done really well in PAX. Obviously, when writing from an animal point of view, an author has to take some liberties, but I didn’t get that anthropomorphic feeling in PAX. PAX was more serious in nature. I didn’t sense Pennypacker giving these foxes unnatural traits. The way they teach Pax how to hunt, and their reaction to their parents’ death seemed like natural character traits to me.

    • I agree with Mr. H about Pax’s characterization, but agree that the woman character was a weakness of the book.

  4. As much as I personally loved the “we need to really assess the true costs of going to war” message, we’re not assessing the book for political messages that we agree with, we’re looking for how well the book developed that theme and message. And in that respect, the book is lacking. There was no subtlety to that message. It was straight up said out loud several times, just in case we missed it the first time, which to me is not a distinguished delineation of a theme

    I’m also not completely convinced that the “apple falls far from the tree” theme was entirely successful. We know that Peter wants to be different, and that that’s half the battle. But the only time we see him get really angry, he tamps it all down, which, as Vola points out, is not a healthy long-term solution. He never learns constructive means of controlling or expressing his anger, so how do we know that, despite his best intentions, it doesn’t all come crashing down on him later? I doubt most people with anger issues enjoy lashing out and want that as their goal, it’s more a matter of not having the tools to constructively redirect that anger.

    I also found it very unrealistic that multiple adult characters facilitate a child with a clearly broken leg in not just running away from home, but actively running into a known military zone during a war. Maybe it could happen. Maybe I should give it the benefit of the doubt. But I just can’t.

    I personally did not like the vagueness of the setting, but I can appreciate that it was intentional even if it didn’t click for me. What bugged me about it is the way that it completely ignored Peter’s probable understanding of what was going on in his world. It’s been months since I read the book and I don’t have a copy on hand to check, but I remember that he’s shocked when he realizes that Pax is now in a war zone. Yet it’s obvious that that war zone is very close to where he lives. He mentions playing in the area where Pax is with his friends, so we have to assume that it’s extremely close to where he lives, possibly even accessible by walking from his or his friends’ backyard, since I don’t know a lot of parents that randomly drive their children into the woods and then drop them off to play for hours. Kids overhear adults talking, they see newspaper headlines. They don’t need to be sat down and specifically told that the world is in upheaval. Peter would absolutely know that his home town was going to very soon be a war zone, and I find it a little insulting to the intelligence of children to imply that he had absolutely no idea whatsoever.

    • I looked at the “the apple falls far from the tree” theme differently than you. I loved the theme, and I think the reason we only see Peter get angry once is because that is how he’s different from his father. There are moments where Peter’s anger could rise and consume him and it doesn’t. He’s filled with something more, different than his father. I guess I’m looking at it the opposite of you. Another example would be his reaction to seeing his grandfather’s photograph of his father and his father’s dog. The whole reason Peter went back for Pax was because he was unlike his father and looking at that photograph helped him realize how different he was from his father. If anything, his father may have become the man he is because he didn’t make the same choice Peter is making by going after Pax. I like the depth of character here and the relationship between these characters. I thought it was nicely complex.

      Also, this might be nit-picky of your reactions, but the only adult Peter encountered with his broken leg was Vola. He doesn’t break his leg until after he runs away. He breaks it and sneaks into her barn. And, she had serious issues with sending him out on his own. It was the whole reason she kept him with her so long, training him and building up his strength. I thought some significant time passed while he was with her… Again, I liked these scenes, with her. They were creepy and atmospheric and revealing with some nice character depth.

      • There were two other adults besides Vola. The bus driver (who admittedly I think Vola talked into it…but still, he’s an adult and makes choices) watches Peter get off the bus at what is the last stop because of the war. I can’t remember because it’s been the better part of a year, but I vaguely think he knows or at least suspects that Peter is alone and heading to danger. Then the military guard, who is a teenager but again is considered an adult in authority, actively lets him into the war zone simply because he remembers missing his own dog. It’s an active war zone. Nostalgia or sympathy should not be playing into decisions about allowing an injured pre-teen into the area.

        It wasn’t that big of a deal, more that it was emblematic of the sort of thing that kept jarring me out of the story.

      • Remind me why Vola couldn’t/wouldn’t take him back in a vehicle. I agree that it seems far-fetched that an adult would react to Peter in that way.

      • Oh, that’s right! Thanks.

        However, I will stay say that I believe some significant time has passed at Vola’s farm. Peter is stronger remember, and carrying himself differently by this time. I guess, I didn’t find that as odd.

        The soldier speaking to him, made me think that war was a common thing in this setting. Vola herself was injured in a recent war, correct? I kind of got the feeling that the setting was constantly in a state of war and that is why everyone was ho-hum about it. I thought that was a theme of the book. Desensitizing ourselves as a society and how people like Peter were different than that. Hopeful!

        Maybe that was wrong.

        And the only reason I can remember why Vola doesn’t take him herself is because she’s a bit of a recluse, and doesn’t want to venture out. That was it.

  5. Safranit Molly says:

    I had a nice conversation about Pax with one of my 6th grade students last spring. We had the conversation via email so I was able to look back on that conversation today to refresh my memory on her young reader’s perspective. We both enjoyed the story. We recognized and enjoyed the canine/human bond. We read eagerly to find out if they would find each other in the end. However we both found we had many unanswered questions by the end. I am speaking for myself when I say that the unanswered questions were not the open-ended wonderings I feel when reading a fable but rather the loose ends that make the story feel incomplete. For instance the Grandfather never appears again; it felt unbelievable to me that Peter never heard that his Grandfather or anyone was searching for him. A young boy disappears near a war zone and no one is looking for him? I also felt that Pax choosing his fox family over Peter in the end felt untrue. The canine human bond that had drawn them toward each other throughout the book was suddenly trumped by species connection. It didn’t feel true to me. It felt like allegory. Like many of you, my student and I both had trouble with the vagueness of the setting. I understand that it was a choice, I just couldn’t create the setting in my mind while I was reading. She had many questions around the setting as well. Finally, my student and I both said our favorite moment of the story was when Peter decided that he was going to go back to find Pax. We both felt the strongest connection to Peter in that moment; he was galvanized to action and finally did what he should have done from the beginning. That the best part of the story came so early says a lot about the arc of the plot in this book. Overall we both enjoyed the story but found too many flaws to argue that it is distinguished.

  6. I loved this book — especially that Pax seemed foxlike. He didn’t seem anthropomorphic, just domesticated, and loving his boy. I thought the animal characters were very well done.
    My biggest problem was with the setting. She tried to make it “This could happen anywhere” — but then had specific details that tied it to the United States. Baseball was one. The other — wasn’t Vola Native American? (It’s been awhile since I read it. That might have only been implied.) The only problem with that was that the old fox remembered a war occurring there in its lifetime. And while I can imagine a future where America has war on its own soil — that hasn’t happened in the lifetime of any current wildlife. So it ruined the immediacy of the “It could happen here.” (This is probably only a problem for me who tends to get hung up on inconsistencies in internal logic.)

    • Are these troubles that readers are having with the setting, a disqualifying factor?

      • I would say they aren’t necessarily “disqualifying,” but setting is one of the areas where we look for the book to be distinguished. I would argue Pax is distinguished in character and plot and theme. But setting not so much.

  7. I feel like some of Pennypacker’s beautiful language and writing is getting lost or forgotten in these discussions of setting and plot…

    I loved her opening page, for example, from Pax’s point of view.

    “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.” Nice alliteration in there and an emphasis on feeling, or how Pax experiences emotions.

    I thought the book was filled with good technical writing. Anyone agree or have other examples?

    • Oh, I agree about her wonderfully evocative language. That first chapter pulls you right in and wrenches your heart. She does a great job giving that first chapter firmly from the perspective of the fox.

    • I completely agree. The writing in Pax is beautiful, and I personally really loved this book because of her exquisite style and language, and when I finished I felt sure it would be a Newbery contender. A pile of books later, I am not so sure it will get a sticker, but it’s certainly distinguished and deserves consideration.

      I personally was not turned off by the lack of a concrete setting, and someone else mentioned (here or in another discussion) the issues with an abstract setting tend to bother adults more than kids. I have to agree. Kids seem far more accepting of a world that exists outside of our own understanding.

      My biggest issue with this book, which I mentioned earlier, is the lack of thematic subtlety. The writing is lyrical and impressive. The characters are well developed and complex, and the plot is intriguing. Unfortunately, the “anti-war” rhetoric felt excessive, blunt, and in contrast with the otherwise subdued and thought provoking story.

    • I agree. PAX absolutely boasts some of Pennypacker’s most evocative writing. Setting aside any other mitigating quibble, the quality of text is outstanding.

      Still, not my first, second, third, fourth, or fifth choice. 🙂

  8. Sam Leopold says:

    I disagree with those who say there are at least six or seven other books more distinguished than Pax. I see it as a top five book for me. The character development was not as strong as I would like. But there are so many distinguished parts of the writing that I feel it definitely has a shot at an honor award.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      My problem on an annual basis is that because I read so much middle grade fiction it becomes harder and harder to see something that truly separates itself from the pack. Like I said, I can see a half dozen middle grade books that are very strong contenders, but I don’t see much separation between them. If you want to argue PAX is the best, or the third best, or the fifth best, or the seventh best, I’d be receptive to any of those arguments at this point. I’d probably have to reread them all to gain clarity on how I personally would rank them afterwards.

    • Ayden Morgan Bush says:

      Pax is definitely a top five book for me too, because it accurately portrays characters. The perspective change in each chapter is one of the most interesting parts of Pax to me.

    • Clayton James Cotton says:

      I agree, Mr. Leopold. Some parts, though are discouraging in the book; in all the beginning, middle, and end. The ending, though, was memorable, as one of the Commandments of Excellent Writing. Thus, I cannot figure if the ending was memorable in a good way or a bad way. I think the ending is good in a sad way. So many feeling were mixed up for me!

  9. Sir. Baxweln W. Henford says:

    Warning! Spoilers!

    This book was very heartwarming and one of my favorite books to read. The theme I think is often under looked at, it gives the book a new attribute. Actually, there are many themes to look at, and they all have a meaning and purpose.

    1.Peter letting Pax go in to the wild to live with Runt and Bristle showed true selflessness and care. Peter wanted Pax to go with him, after all he traveled many.many miles to find him, but he did what he thought was best for Pax, even if it meant lying to him.

    2.Peters journey to find Pax showed perseverance, Peter stopped at nothing to find Pax, not even a broken foot.

    As well as this, Pax showed pretty good character development, the only characters who seemed not as interesting were the two main characters, Peter and Pax. Vola, Bristle, and Runt all seemed to be more interesting characters.

    Plot wise, Pax did a great job, except for the part where he stayed at Vola’s barn. Although there was a vast variety of imagery, not much happened there at all. Some of the conversations Vola had with Peter though were interesting and developed both Peter and Vola.

    Overall, this book has high potential to win the Newberry award and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to win.

  10. Rostem Rillef says:

    I think Pax is a beautiful book.I got to know the characters like they were family.And that is hard to do when one of your characters is an animal.I feel that the plot development was amazing.I felt that

  11. sophia bezakova says:

    hello Mr.Hunt I am a student at Ellerhorst Elementry and I just read the book PAX i’m wondering how did Vola lose her leg. Also I really liked the book but by the end I had a lot of questions like what happened to Runt and Bristle, did he meet Vola again? please answer soon

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