“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grownups, then you write it for children.”
Some books won’t let go. Two such children’s books have come into my life in recent months. The first I’ll discuss here, the other, in my next post. Neither, believe me, is a bedtime story. And I wouldn’t characterize either as “playful reading.” But each is worth sharing with children of the appropriate age, despite the troubling subject matter. For, in truth, children are already all too familiar—if blessedly, for some, only at a distance—with these realities. Children’s book creator Maurice Sendak once said, “I remember my childhood vividly. I knew terrible things… but I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew; it would scare them.”
Pax by Sara Pennypacker—illustrated by Jon Klassen—is a sobering novel with complex themes. It’s about the deep bond between a tamed pet fox (Pax) and a boy (Peter) who, once separated, struggle to find their way back to each other. It’s about Vola, too, a war vet with a prosthetic leg and a history of PTSD, who gives twelve-year-old Peter shelter at one point in his search for Pax. Both also are searching for peace, in their hearts. The novel has garnered multiple-four-star reviews, including one in the New York Times.
That said, the story was problematic for some grownups, if a number of complaints on Goodreads is any indication—particularly “difficult” for those who charge the author with “an antiwar message” and who, in essence, say, enough already about how horrible humans are and how bad war is. Others complain about the less-than-perfectly-happy ending, that they weren’t moved to tears of joyful resolution.
I didn’t cry at the ending either. I got angry. It was the characters’ questions about the costs of war that prompted my furious journal scribblings: “…an amazing work that bravely tackles what most [merely] dance around—the insanity of war, the way it ravages the lives of participants in it, but also claims casualties among those who want no part of it. Destruction of the environment. Evacuation. The killing of innocent people and wild things. The perversion of the human spirit.
We often glorify it, justify every war as necessary—the war to end all wars; the “humanitarian” thing to do; in all cases, the only thing to do). And when loved ones die serving in one, we’re more likely to praise their noble sacrifice—how else to survive such loss!?— than to rage at the terrible waste of human life…”
In an interview, the author Pennypacker admits that this is what she intended, that for a long time, she’d “wanted to write about the injustice of adults committing wars and children paying for them…” Pennypacker looks unstintingly at this outmoded human invention. When I first heard the term in my twenties, I thought the choice of “outmoded” an odd one, meaning out-of-fashion or outdated, but later learned it also means no longer viable, unacceptable.
For some, war is, and always will be, a necessary fact of life. It’s a matter of opinion, but I submit, on the other hand, that it’s not only unacceptable (and given the presence of nuclear arsenals capable of swift and global destruction, certainly no longer viable) but one day, for an evolved species of human, will also be unthinkable.
To get there, we have to raise the honest questions and take the answers to heart. Move beyond resignation and step into what one is called to do— finding peace in one’s heart, for starters, as these characters in the novel do.
Vola tells the boy repeatedly, “We tell the truth here, that’s the rule,” and Peter counts her rule as gift. “It was a valuable thing, he suddenly realized, to have someone you could count on for honesty. How many times in his life had he wanted only that?”
The author poses honest questions in a book for the perfect audience, as she puts it—middle graders [and I’d suggest, middle schoolers] “who are passionate about reading, passionate about justice, and just opening up about the big questions in the world.”
If one has the opportunity, what a privilege to explore such questions, however difficult, in the company of the young!