I was looking for a book that would be relatively short, light-hearted, and fun to read. Something a kid might read in school or over the summer (because that's the kind of thing I read to relax). And boy howdy I can tell you I found exactly what I was looking for in Sara Pennypacker's Pax.
The book opens with the betrayal that sets the scene for the rest of the story, giving both main characters (a fox named Pax and his boy Peter) a reason to grow and change through the following chapters, which they did in excellent form. The setting is real in every sense, the characters are vivid and loveable, and the story has a heartwarming ending that made me feel good. I'm glad I read it.
One of the things that charmed me about this book was the pacing. It's not so fast that it feels frantic, like I don't have enough time to process what's happening before the next thing comes up. But it's not so slow that I'm well done with what's happening and impatient to get to the next thing. In addition to the good pacing, there was also the alternation between the two main characters.
Since Peter and Pax are in different places, growing as people in very different ways, the reader gets the bonus of two stories for the price of one - the first a story about a boy discovering who he is without his fox, and the second of a fox learning about the cost of war and who pays it.
This book deals with themes of grief, separation, dependence, and anger. There is no gore or bad language, but there are a couple violence scenes (featuring explosions and the injuries caused thereby). I would confidently say that this book is suitable for children 11/12 and up, or younger with adult supervision. This is a good story to read out loud, since there aren't a lot of words that are difficult to pronounce.
If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think! I enjoyed this very very much. :)
Edit: I've noticed that there are some readers who particularly disliked the ending, and I'd like to make an argument in favor of the ending as is.
SPOILERS START HERE: At the end of Pax, Peter and his fox are reunited, but only briefly. Rather than taking his fox home and keeping him safe and sound and snuggly, Peter lets Pax go, and indeed encourages him to leave and rejoin his new fox family by throwing Pax's favorite toy into the forest (which is the same event that started the book).
This is a hard ending, and it hurts, but it's also the culmination of the lessons that both Pax and Peter have been learning all through the book up to that point. At the beginning of the book, Peter was emotionally dependent on his fox, and not necessarily in a healthy way. He was repressing his feelings of grief and anger, and terrified that he would someday not be able to control them. On the other side of things, Pax was raised in captivity, unable to look out for himself or interact with other animals.
Through the book, both of them grew and learned what it meant to be a boy in the world and a fox in the wood - both of them grew and developed closer to what they were meant to be. If at the end, Peter had taken Pax home and everything had gone back to "normal," then all that growth and learning would have been for nothing, communicating to the reader that those changes had been false or at least pointless. I don't think that was the case.
So yes, the ending was hard, and it hurt to read, but it was necessary. In the long run, letting Pax go was healthier for both of them, even if it wasn't the "happy ending" I was hoping for. </SPOILERS>