Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.
Written by: Sara Pennypacker Illustrated by: Jon Klassen
Published by: Balzer + Bray, 2016 ISBN: 0062377019 (ISBN13: 9780062377012) Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library.
I initially wanted to feature this middle-grade novel for our previous reading theme, but I realized that our Nomads, Homes, and Habitats: Restlessness and Refuge in Literature would be a much more perfect fit for this book.
There are quite a number of things happening in this story. There is a war going on, Peter (whose mother is dead) had to move in with his grandfather as his father enlisted in the army, and as a consequence he needed to let go of his animal companion whom he took care of from the time it was a kit, a fox whom he named Pax.
From the moment that he let go of Pax, Peter knew he made a mistake. So he left the comforts of his grandfather’s home to find his way back to the place where he left Pax – after all, it isn’t really too far, just three hundred miles away. In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to share that I’m not overly fond of runaway stories. The middle grade novel The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart left an ugly taste in my mouth – and I was afraid that this story would go the same path. Fortunately, it didn’t.
I suppose it was the presence of Vola, a no-nonsense, wounded ex-soldier-medic with a prosthetic leg, living on her own, that made the difference in this story. When Peter twisted his ankle on his way to find Pax, he found himself in Vola’s barn. Over and above the central narrative of a boy trying to find his pet (with virtually zero plan except a memorized map from an atlas and a peanut butter sandwich), it was Vola’s voice that spoke to me more – particularly when she asked Peter this question (I took a photo of the page and edited it using an iPhone app):
I also appreciated that the story was told in alternating viewpoints – while the reader gets to see what Peter is going through with the reluctant Good Samaritan Vola, there is also Pax who was provided a distinct voice and the new friends he meets on his way to find his young boy. I like how Pax was depicted to have this distinct capacity to smell yearning, fear, and war – as his sole desire is to find his boy to protect him from this scent of oncoming danger (see below).
While I loved reading this story, I am not sure how much this would resonate with a lot of restless, young readers, impatient for the next plot twist or quick adventure. Yet, I did find this novel to be somewhat quick-paced, while at the same time there was also a lingering quality that enabled the reader to sit still for a moment, calm the restlessness, as Peter was recuperating in Vola’s barn. This allowed Peter to sink deep into himself, discovering his own strengths and limitations, at the same time that he is also getting to know his largely-unwilling benefactor, Vola, who felt lost for a time, and in helping this lost young boy, started to also rediscover herself (see below):
One of the highlights for me was when Vola described Peter’s relationship with Pax as “two but not two”:
“It’s a Buddhist concept. Nonduality. It’s about oneness, about how things that seem to be separate are really connected to one another. There are no separations… This is not just a piece of wood. This is also the clouds that brought the rain that watered the tree, and the birds that nested in it and the squirrels that fed on its nuts. It is also the food my grandparents fed me that made me strong enough to cut the tree, and it’s the steel in the axe I used. And it’s how you know your fox, which allowed you to carve him yesterday. And it’s the story you will tell your children when you give this to them.” (pp. 186-187)
The story raises a lot of possible discussion points with thoughtful readers: what is your core? What is your orchard that would allow you to find who you are? Have you experienced “two but not two?” How do you heal the greatest betrayal of all? What does abandonment feel like? How would it be like to have a raging baseball bat inside you that couldn’t be tamed? More importantly, what does home mean to you? How do you find your center?
Maybe A Fox
Written by: Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee
Published by: A Caitlin Dlouhy Book: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016 ISBN:1442482427 (ISBN13: 9781442482425) Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library.
Ok, this one will be very brief, as I tend not to spend too much time on books that, while they may not have resonated with me, may be good for other people who need something exactly like this in their lives. I understand that fellow bibliophiles were raving about this book. The protagonist, however, young Jules (who has this fascination with rocks) did not sit well with me. Perhaps we did not get off to a good start because from the very first page, she was already whining and complaining. As the book progresses, turns out she does have something to whine about: her mother, after all, has been dead for quite awhile, and her older sister (with whom she bickers with a great deal) is about to die. So yes, a lot of deaths here in this book.
Despite the magic in the story, which ordinarily should lure me in, I found it to be too underdeveloped for me to really feel emotionally invested in the story. The premise is good. As Sylvie dies (Jules’ older sister), a fox cub is born. Stories like these are fairly common – with reincarnation narratives, or connections found between humans and animals especially as a trauma, unfinished business, or strong emotional energies permeate a particular place. Again, it should be good, but it simply wasn’t for me.
The Wolf Wilder
Written by: Katherine Rundell Illustrated by: Gelrev Ongbico
Published by: Bloomsbury, 2015 ISBN13: 9781408862582. Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.
Of the three novels, I would have to say that this one is my favourite. Strong, capable, decisive female character who does not resort to complaining when things don’t go her way; she bites instead. She cares little about how people think of her – except for her beautiful, strong-hearted mother – and the wolves, of course. The fact that the setting is in snowbound Russia a century ago adds to the mystique of the story.
Feodora and her mother have the most exotic job I have had the privilege of reading this year. Think of them as wolf-whisperers. After the royalty has gotten bored or frustrated with their ‘pet’ wolves (who are not meant to be domesticated anyway), they need to be re-trained by Feo and her mother to survive back in the wilds.
Feo is, very clearly, part of the pack. She snarls, she runs, she helps wolves give birth, and she feeds the wild creatures with her hands. This is a fast-paced novel, but given to moments of exquisite beauty too. I also especially enjoyed how there are snapshots of cultural distinctiveness too:
Marina had always said that the Russians, of all nations, know best how to meet death. You treat your wounded, bury your bodies. You cry, and you sing, and you cook. You do these things not for yourself but for the people left behind. (p. 225)
I find the artwork to be quite compelling and did the narrative justice. But it was the end that sort of made me scrunch my nose a little in confusion. The army of children seemed to challenge credulity way too much. Regardless, this is a fascinating middle grade novel that is unlike any I have read in the past several months.