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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sara Pennypacker explores loss, nature in new ‘Pax’ novel

Sara Pennypacker often kept to herself as a child in school, the kid who opted to read quietly and kept a bright blue notebook with her so she could craft written stories. Once for a class assignment, she submitted one of those stories to her teacher.

“I was too shy to look at her because she was an adult, so I’m standing there to get my blue notebook with my story back, and she won’t give it to me,” Pennypacker said. “So I’m tugging, tugging, until finally I look at her – and it’s miserable, but I have to look at her – and she said, ‘I want you to remember this moment. You are going to be an author.’ And I just thought she has no idea that authors are celebrities, and I’m not.”

In her career, Pennypacker is credited with 25 books under her name. “Pax, Journey Home,” a sequel to the beloved 2016 “Pax” novel that focused on the friendship between a teenage boy and a wild fox, will be in bookstores on Tuesday.

But it didn’t begin that way. Pennypacker pursued a career as a painter and found success running her own gallery for years. A need to create had always scratched at Pennypacker, but she never realized that she wanted to write until after she closed her art gallery and started the process of moving to another state.

The time away offered the chance for her to pivot to a different field. She wanted to write a novel. “Right away, I was sitting at the desk and I looked at the sentences I’m writing, and every step of the way, I was like, yes, this feels so good,” Pennypacker said. “It’s not as hard as everything I thought it was supposed to be. You know, not that it’s not difficult, but that it just felt natural.”

Pennypacker’s first published novel was “Dumbstruck” (1994), and she quickly found a foothold with child audiences with the seven-book series “Clementine” that followed a year of school for a third-grade girl.

“Journey Home” opens a year after the events of the first book, and the lives of the two main characters have changed drastically – Peter is a newly orphaned boy who sets off on his own in dangerous forested terrain, and Pax is tasked with caring for one of his sick kits.

Pennypacker said she knew the sequel could not start too far into the future because of how long red foxes tend to live, which is about five years. In preparation, she consulted with red fox experts and researched the ecology of the setting. Pennypacker also knew she wanted to distinguish the voices of the two narrators – the fox and the boy.

Elements of a good story often parallel what she learned as a visual artist, Pennypacker said. An artist should not let their piece follow predictable lines, she said, and is instead there to facilitate pure expression and allow the pieces to finish themselves.

Although Pennypacker finished 2016’s “Pax” certain that she would never write a sequel, reader reactions and her publishers encouraged the continuation of the complex friendship between the teen and wild fox.

“It isn’t until I’ve finished a draft that I go, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a whole theme about home here,’ and I’ll say, ‘How did that happen?’ ” Pennypacker said. “It’s as if the story has something going on for itself, that I’m only serving and not really aware of, but I figure it out later.”

As a children’s author, Pennypacker said she always views the narrative from a child’s perspective. When Pennypacker first began publishing, her young son and daughter informed much of her writing.

Janelle Smith, owner of Wishing Tree Books where “Pax, Journey Home” will be available ahead of Pennypacker’s Northwest Passages Book Club virtual event 4 p.m. Thursday, said she wanted to showcase Pennypacker’s work because of its wide-reaching resonance for kids and adults.

“(Reading is) such a safe way to go through difficult things,” Smith said. “Like my own child, you know, was very anxious and had a hard time with anything that was mean or emotional in the stories. It’s such a safe way to go through it, like you can put it down if it’s too much. You can make it through and just have that in your repertoire of what happens in the world.”

Smith said Pennypacker’s work reaches beyond the confines of an 8-to-12 demographic because children are viewed as smart and flawed individuals rather than kids who need to learn a lesson. “They are so compassionate. … I love that she knows that and honors that and just offers it to them,” Smith said. “Again, it just honors their little hearts, and I think that’s great.”