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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by HarperCollins Children’s Books.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Sarah Hunter talks to Sara Pennypacker, author of the number-one, New York Times best-seller, Pax; the award-winning Clementine series and a spin-off series, Waylon; and the acclaimed novels, Summer of the Gypsy Moths and Here in the Real World. She divides her time between Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Florida. You can visit her online at www.sarapennypacker.com.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
SARAH HUNTER: Tell us a little bit about Pax: Journey Home.
SARA PENNYPACKER: Well, I never planned to write it. In fact, I was quite sure I wasn’t going to write it. I felt that Pax ended in a way that allowed readers to imagine what happened in the next few hours or the next few days, for themselves, and I liked that. But I got so many letters from kids really wanting to talk about what would happen next in the book. And I was fine with that, I expected that, but what I didn’t expect was that I wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about what happened next, also.
So, I had a little talk with my agent and I said just what I had told him, I was like, “Everybody wants to know.” And I said to him, “Of course, I do know what happens next. I’ve really thought about it.” And he asked me, “What?” And I talked to him and after a while, we both realized, “Oh, wow, I have a book.” And my editor agreed, “You really need to write that.” So I didn’t mean to write it, but now I’m so glad that I have. I’m so glad that that came back for me. It was a real honor to speak for foxes and a real pleasure to do it a second time. I didn’t have to do as much research this time and I really felt like I was back in a world that was such a treat to enter.
That’s wonderful. So we talked a little bit about this before we started, that so much of your book deals with healing from trauma, which isn’t a very common topic in books for this age group. How do you approach writing about trauma for kids?
Well, we all have trauma. Okay? So it’s not that trauma doesn’t belong at all. What I have to keep remembering and what I was really conscious of, anyway, is that kids have so few resources for dealing with trauma. They don’t have much experience with it; it could be the first time. They don’t have the resources that we have, such as experience, or sometimes they don’t have enough support—they’re lucky if they do—and they don’t have financial resources. It’s new to them, and sometimes, to protect themselves, they make what turn out to be errors. I don’t want to even say that they’re mistakes. But for instance, Peter has been wounded, he’s had a lot of loss, and of course he withdraws and of course he thinks the only way to protect himself is to harden himself. So I just wanted to be really careful about not portraying him as making mistakes, but as, this is what he feels he needs to do, and let’s respect that for a while.
Yeah. And it is really notable in the book, that the people who question the way he’s dealing with his trauma don’t push him in any particular direction.
Nobody is very hard or instructive. They let him come to his own conclusions about what’s going to be the best way for him to move forward in his life.
Right. And it might be because he doesn’t have a mom or a dad who would be close enough that they might interfere in a really good way. Certainly, his mom would have had a talk with him about stuff. So, no, it’s better that they seem to know that he’s on a path and trust him. And certainly, it’s just true that an animal can sometimes break through, which is what I wanted to explore. And there’s a lot of other healing in the book, too; it’s not just Peter.
War damages: war wounds land and people and animals. So, I thought it was really great for me to have an opportunity to not leave the book during a war. Pax, we left when the war was still going on, so damage was still occurring. I really appreciated the chance to go back and say, “Okay, this happens. What can we do about it?” And take a look at some of the positive things that we can do.
Yeah. I’m thinking back about something you said when we were talking about Peter and how the people in his life have to trust him to figure out for himself how to heal, to a certain extent. And I’m wondering if you think about that with readers, too? I feel like you put a lot of trust in your readers with this book. This book does not talk down to children at all.
And I wonder if you think about your readers in a particular way when you’re writing a book like this?
I’ve said this before—well, I haven’t said it to you, but I would really like to say this: when I was beginning the Clementine series, I was lucky enough to hear a quote that changed the way I wrote. The quote was from Carl Jung. He was asked, “Why is there evil in the world?” And his answer was, “There’s evil in the world when people can’t tell their stories.” And that just knocked me out. I like to say that rang like a tuning bell. I knew that was meant for me to hear. And I thought about it. I thought, “Okay, what I need to take from it is: no longer will I write for children in the sense of for meaning, ‘Here you go, here’s a present. I gift this book to you and you receive it.’”
I write for children because kids don’t have what it takes to be able to tell a story; they often don’t. You need a powerful voice. You need great narrative language skills. You need a platform and you need an audience. And thanks to people like Booklist, I have a platform and an audience, and I happen to have been blessed with a narrative voice and a powerful enough voice. So I decided, Okay, from now on, all my books have to speak for children in the sense that I have to take their place. Whatever I say, it better not be talking to them saying, “Here’s what you should do.” But saying, “This is how it feels, this is what I’m trying.”
So it was a really big difference for me, and I take it seriously. So anyway, I think that Peter would do those things. And if people aren’t trusting him, I think what they know is that [those things] will fail. Hardening yourself to the world, it fails. You don’t want it to succeed, but don’t worry because something or someone is going to get in. We are built to open ourselves up, I think.
So tell me a little bit about what inspires your writing, in general?
Well, one thing that inspires me—although I haven’t done this for a year and a half now—is going out and talking to kids. I talk about the books and the books all have something serious at their heart, even the Clementines, which seems to be about the self; they’re really about paying total attention to who you are. So kids are talking to me afterwards, and I’m just always so amazed at how brave they are. I could be talking, for instance, during Pax, when I was touring with Pax, we were talking about terrible things, about refugees and animals being abandoned and all this stuff. And over and over and over, kids said to me, some form of, “What can we do to help?”
Instead of, “Eh, what can we do?” which some adults will say about large problems. Kids generally said, “What can we do?” and meant it, and that was the whole inspiration behind my book, Here in the Real World, which is really a book about different ways that people, even kids without resources, can help, can do things.
So I would say, that inspires me, but what it really takes for me to write a book is two things: I need to have imagined the character, that, would that character be real, I would take a bullet for; and then there really does have to be some sense of injustice. Something has to get me steamed up. So, at the time of Pax, I was steamed up about kids and animals, and the price they pay for wars that they are never really engaged in or even asked about. And then, Here in the Real World, I just wanted to talk a little bit about healing and getting better and trying again.
How have libraries played a role in your reading or writing life?
One thing I loved about my library is, I was a quiet kid. I just did not like chaos, I didn’t like shouting. And I remember how much I loved the library because you weren’t allowed to do those things! Finally, finally, these kids in my school, in my life, had to be quiet. So I really loved that. I’ve always loved libraries but that was one weird reason. Another reason was that it seemed to me that everything else in my life had a limit or a boundary. Like you can go in the store, you can help choose dinner tonight, if it’s hamburger or chicken, whatever, or you may get two pair of socks for school or something. But with libraries, I never had that feeling, it was like, “as much as you want, whatever you want.” So I loved that.
I will tell you that today, one thing that still moves me—I have to apologize to librarians—is when I’m in a library, which I do frequently, and I overhear or see a librarian say to a child, “I think you will like this book.” I just choked up now. I have to wait a minute; it makes me cry! It never fails to make me cry.
I guess because I’ve now been 25 years a writer, I have known a lot of librarians. I’ve known a lot of stories about how important that is: that some person knows the child, knows what’s going on in the reader’s life, and knows the book—and knowing those three things, puts them together. Tears. I can’t stand it.
I still love my library. I’m very sad I haven’t been inside a library; we’re still being super careful. It’s great that I can borrow books without going inside, but I miss going inside.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
What do I like to read? I love adult historical fiction. I’ll read that over and over. And I think what I like about it—I realized this; I did write an adult book once and it was historical fiction—is the sense that the audience brings to it: “Oh, no, I already know what happens.” “Oh, no, war is about to break out.” “Don’t go out on that dock at Pearl Harbor.” That kind of built-in tension. I love that. And I also love the historical fiction that brings me to the world that people I knew were in, like my grandparents, or my parents’ world. So I like that.
When I’m writing, I am very careful not to read anything in the genre that I’m writing. So, I’ve been writing novels for kids for several years now. The last Waylon, which was not a novel—it was a chapter book, really—was now several years ago. It’s been five, six years. I haven’t really read much of my favorite genre, which is middle-grade novels. I’m just trying not to be influenced.
Are there any middle-grade titles you return to when you do read it?
I know that on my list that I want to go back and read for at least a third time is Okay for Now. I love that. I just pulled out Joan Bauer’s Hope Was Here; I love that book, about the girl in the diner. Do you know that book?
No, I don’t think I do.
Yeah. They’re about a short-order cook who has to go to this town they don’t want to go to and start working in a diner. It’s beautiful, Hope Was Here. I would read Because of Winn-Dixie once a year. I’ll tell you that. I think I could read anything of hers [Kate DiCamillo’s] once a year.
Yeah. Well, it has been lovely talking about books with you. I think that’s about all we have time for today. Thank you again for telling us about Pax. It’s a great resolution to the first book and it’s a nice bookend to the story. I encourage everybody to go out and read it.
Well, can I give a little teaser on it? For me to be able to go back in the world of the foxes was just wonderful, anyway. But oh, my gosh, to be able to write about fox kits; it’s a little spoiler, but you’ll see it on the beautiful cover that Jon Klassen did for this book. Pax has a kit and he loves the kit very much, but the kit gets in some trouble. Anyway, I will just warn everybody: don’t go start watching videos of fox kits because you’ll lose days and weeks. Oh my gosh, they’re so marvelous and adorable. It was a joy for me.
Yeah. They’re so bouncy!
Yeah. They are so cute and funny and curious. So yeah, that’s the last thing I want to say is: what a joy for me (and I hope for the readers, too) to go back into the world of foxes, to see the world through a wild animal . . . and especially through a very wild animal. That was a real treat for me and I hope for the reader.
Thank you again for that great conversation. And thanks also to our sponsor, HarperCollins Children’s Books, for making this podcast possible. Pax, Journey Home is on shelves now. Happy reading.
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