Roz the robot embraced the wild world of nature in one of our favorite novels for independent young readers, Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot. In the sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes, Roz faces a new challenge: adapting back to the world of machines and civilization. How will she adjust? And will she make it back to the island she now considers home?
This Thursday, March 22, at 4:30 p.m., Brown will sit down with young fans at Parnassus Books to talk about his beloved characters, what it’s like to be a writer, and why storytelling is so much fun. And if you get the new book from Parnassus, he’ll sign it, too! Meanwhile, Brown discussed his books with his friend — and ours — entertainer Emily Arrow. (You’ll recognize Arrow from our Thursday afternoon singalong storytimes and her popular music for young book-lovers.)
Here’s their conversation:
EA: In music, one of the best parts of being a fan is hearing your favorite artists “grow up” with you. Your transition from picture books to middle grade is such a fantastic way to grow with your readers. As an acclaimed picture book creator, what has the journey been like transitioning to writing middle grade novels?
PB: I was afraid to write my first novel. But I was so excited to tell a story about a robot in the wilderness that eventually I decided to go for it. Along the way, I tried to stay in my comfort zone by using many of the tricks I rely on while making picture books. For starters, I spent a lot of time mapping each wild robot story. Then I did a ton of research, filling my brain with information that I could delicately drop into the stories to make them as believable as possible. Eventually, I’d begin the actual writing.
In a way, I approached each chapter as if it were its own picture book text, carefully crafting them so that every sentence flowed into the next, so that every word was necessary. That approach felt natural to me. But there comes a point toward the end of the process where the number of decisions I had to make, and the sheer volume of information I had to keep track of, became overwhelming and stressful. By the time I finished each wild robot book I was completely frazzled. Hopefully with more experience I’ll find ways of making the writing process a little less stressful.
EA: Roz the robot. Oh my goodness, she is truly a rockstar character! How did this beloved robot in The Wild Robot and now The Wild Robot Escapes evolve? Do you find inspiration for your characters from people in your own life?
PB: Roz began as a random sketch I made in my sketchbook, of a robot in a tree. That began a period of my life where I kept drawing scenes of robots in nature, and where I kept asking myself questions. Why would a robot be in the wilderness? How would a robot react to the wilderness? How would the wilderness react to a robot? To answer these questions, I began studying robots and nature. I continued drawing and writing down little ideas about how a robot might adapt to the wilderness. And slowly the character of Roz came to life in my imagination.
EA: I imagine most fiction writers struggle through finishing a first book, but a second book in a series is a true feat! When creating The Wild Robot Escapes, how did you decide where to take the story next? And what role do illustrations play in building your storyline?
PB: While writing The Wild Robot I was also making a basic plan for The Wild Robot Escapes. I wanted Roz to live in the wilderness in the first book, and then I wanted reality to come crashing back in the sequel. The wild robot had to experience as much civilization as possible: cities, towns, rural areas, humans, robots, automobiles, airships, domesticated animals. The big ideas for the sequel came early and easily, but the little details were very tricky and slow. It’s not easy to write about drones and driverless cars and the inner workings of a robot in a simple way that everyone will understand, and it took years to get it right.
EA: Educators and parents love your work for its beautifully crafted themes of community, family, and empathy. Do you have tips for other writers on how to express themes without being too heavy-handed?
PB: Try not to think about your “message.” Instead, focus on the story. Put your good intentions aside and just focus on making a well-crafted story. Your message has no chance of getting through if readers don’t finish your book, and they won’t finish your book if they feel like they’re being taught a lesson.
EA: Let’s discuss your intricate settings. Between cityscapes, islands, and now even farms in The Wild Robot Escapes, I always notice how fascinated young readers are by your illustration style. What has helped you form this personal style as an artist?
PB: When it comes to artistic style, I feel a bit lost. I’ll enjoy a new technique, or a new medium, or a new color palette . . . and then I’ll get bored and move on to something else. And so I change my style to suit each particular book. In the Wild Robot books I really just wanted the art to set the mood. The art is monochromatic, the shapes and compositions are simple. And although I describe Roz as being wild and natural in the text, in the art she often looks slightly stiff and robotic. That creates a little tension between the words and the art, which reinforces the tension of the story.
EA: It’s no secret you’re a huge advocate for independent bookstores. In fact, the first time I shared and performed “The Curious Garden Song” with you was at an independent bookstore! Besides being the most magical places on earth, can you share about why independent bookstores are so important?
PB: Readers are smart and curious and resourceful and empathetic, and the world desperately needs more of them. To create more readers, we need a culture that celebrates books and learning, which means we need places that celebrate books and learning. You know, places like independent bookstores.
EA: Because I’m Emily Arrow: If you had to listen to only one album as inspiration while you worked, what would that album be?
PB: Obviously, my first choice would be Emily Arrow’s Storytime Singalong Volume 1. But as I worked on the Wild Robot books I mostly listened to classic jazz albums. If I had to pick a favorite it would probably be Know What I Mean? by Cannonball Adderley. You should give it a listen.
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And bring your little book-lovers to sing-along storytime with Emily Arrow at Parnassus every Thursday afternoon at 4!