Pax Author Sara Pennypacker Recommends her Favourite Children's Fiction About Nature
Some of the greatest and most memorable children’s fiction is about the wonderful connection between humans and nature. Our Children’s Book of the Month for September, Pax, joins a rich tradition of books that celebrate the mystery and wildness of the animal world. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, author Sara Pennypacker talks about the books and experiences that inspired her to write the book and recommends two of her own favourite nature stories for children.
I blame childhood books for incurring a lifelong affliction: Whenever I read a book with an appealing relationship between a human and a wild animal, I am obsessed with the desire to experience it for myself.
After reading The Yearling, for example, by Marjorie Kinnan Rowlings, I was determined to raise a deer, in spite of the story’s heartbreak. I managed to acquire a salt lick as bait – no easy feat in the pre-internet 1960s, especially for a ten-year-old in a non-farming town who was determined to keep the plot a secret from her parents. I spent a whole summer digging traps in the woods from which I dreamed I might rescue my own fawn. Luckily for the deer population, I was never successful.
Likewise, it was fortunate for wild ponies that none existed within a hundred miles of me when I finished Misty of Chincoteague. Generations later, the raccoons of my neighbourhood are probably still laughing about my attempts to capture one of their kits after reading Rascal. And so on.
Because there’s just something about animals – they’re innately compelling – that is elevated to the extraordinary out in nature. Even as a child, I recognized that to be chosen by a wild animal for an encounter was the purest form of acclaim. Yes, I trust you, you are worthy. That belief has endured and deepened now that I’m an author, and I like to explore it in my books. Pax honours a relationship between a boy and a fox; and in the final scene of the novel I am currently writing (working title Here in the Real World) the main characters have an encounter with wild animals which functions as a blessing.
Besides writing about it, I am still enormously drawn to reading children’s books with animals in nature. It’s hard to single out just a few, but here are two of my favourites:
Blitzcat by Robert Westall – It’s not a new book, but still wonderful. An ordinary black cat wanders through World War II England and beyond in search of her master. Survival during wartime is difficult, but along the way, she manages to change the lives of several humans. We are asked to consider the idea that animals affect, and are affected by, human war. The author never exaggerated the cat’s heroics, yet showed her journey with such dignity that the reader can’t help being impressed.
Mrs Frisbee and the Rats of NIHM, by Robert O’Brien – Like the other books on this list, this one touched me for the respect the author shows for his animal characters. The plot begins with a single-mother mouse who needs help to move her family before they are plowed under. That’s appealing enough for me, but what made this book really memorable was the band of rats Mrs Frisbee encounters. They’ve escaped from the lab at the National Institute of Mental Health where experiments have left them stronger and far more intelligent than the rest of their species, and have set out to form a new society. Decades after reading it, I still wonder about some of the questions this book posed.