Author and illustrator Peter Brown, best known for his Caldecott Honor Creepy Carrots, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award—winning Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, and The Curious Garden—among many other best-selling picture books—takes a big step into writing and illustrating his very first middle grade novel, The Wild Robot (coming out April 5). SLJ caught up with Brown to chat about inspirations, the laws of robotics, and his penchant for exploring the relationship between nature and human development.
Who were you as a middle grade reader? What books did you like to read, and what activities did you like to do? (And would you be willing to share a picture of yourself at that age with SLJ readers?)
During my middle grade years, I was what you might call a “reluctant reader.” I was more interested in sports and video games and television than I was in reading. My favorite activity of all was drawing cartoon characters. And so my favorite books at that time were mostly about drawing and cartooning. But every so often a novel would grab my attention. They were usually fantasy stories like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Black Cauldron and The Hobbit. I didn’t really fall in love with reading until much later, which is too bad, because I missed out on some of the very best reading years.
You have had a lot of success with your picture books. What motivated your entry into the world of middle grade fiction?
When I first began tinkering with my ideas for The Wild Robot, I assumed it would just turn into another picture book. But as things developed, it became clear that I needed a longer format to tell the story of Roz. So I decided to make it a novel. I was excited about the new challenge. In fact, for a while I didn’t even want to illustrate The Wild Robot. I simply wanted to prove that I could write it. But then my publisher pulled me aside and gently insisted that I include illustrations, and I’m glad they did. I think the art really helps set the tone of the story.
Heavily illustrated middle grade books are a fairly new entry into the market. Why do you think that young readers are now interested in more graphic novels and illustrated novels? Do you think this interest will continue?
Thanks to technologies like iPads and Xboxes and Instagram, the whole world is becoming more visually literate. We’re all clicking and swiping and photographing and drawing and interacting with visual media. And so I think it makes sense that more people, especially young ones, are interested in visual stories. I’d guess that as these technologies creep further into our lives, more and more people will become interested in graphic novels and illustrated novels.
Your style has evolved quite a bit, but you have also illustrated other people’s stories as well as your own. Do you feel that you now have a signature style? Who were some of the illustrators from whom you have taken your inspiration?
I’m still trying to find my true artistic voice. I’m hoping that one day I’ll develop a visual style and philosophy that feels just right to me. I’ve made progress over the years, but I still don’t feel comfortable with my art. So I try out different mediums and tell different kinds of stories, and every now and then I have a little breakthrough, I find a new technique that I add to my creative toolkit, and then I’m one step closer to finding my own signature style.
Much of this process happens through trial and error in my studio, but, of course, many artists have influenced me along the way. Artists like Edward Hopper, Alice and Martin Provensen, Leonard Weisgard, Lizbeth Zwerger, Eyvind Earle, [and] Indian and medieval painters, as well as the work of filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Disney, Pixar, Chuck Jones, Hayao Miyazaki, Wes Anderson, and Jim Henson.
Robots are somewhat of a mini-trend in middle grade literature and certainly something many readers enjoy reading about. Roz seems different from a lot of robots, and Isaac Asimov’s the “Three Laws of Robotics” don’t really apply, since Roz doesn’t meet any humans. Did you create your own laws pertaining to Roz’s behavior?
First of all, kudos to you for asking such a geeky question. I’m a huge fan of Isaac Asimov, and while working on The Wild Robot I must have read his collection of short stories The Complete Robot a dozen times.
In order to make Roz a believable character, I had to know what she was designed to do and what specific rules were programmed into her computer brain. I decided not to explain those rules in the book, because I wanted to keep things a little mysterious. But we get glimpses of them here and there, like when Roz is attacked by bears and discovers that she is unable to fight back.
Roz’s most important quality, by far, is that she’s programmed to learn. And the wilderness becomes her teacher. The wilderness teaches her to survive, and then it teaches her to live.
Thematically, The Wild Robot has a lot of similarities to your picture book stories. What is the genesis of your interest in ecology, and what are the most important things about it that you would like to share with your young readers?
I grew up in a rural town and spent much of my childhood playing in the woods and fields and streams near my home. But since then I’ve lived in Los Angeles, London, and now Brooklyn. The longer I live in big cities the more I crave the peace and beauty of natural settings and the more fascinated I become with the relationships between humans and the natural world. So I often create characters and stories that allow me to explore those subjects. I won’t pretend to have any great insights for readers; I’m just hoping my stories will get them to spend a little time thinking about their own relationships with nature.
In most middle grade literature, the main character often has lost at least one parent, but Roz and Brightbill’s strong parent/child bond is a main focus of The Wild Robot. How did you come to include that in this story?
The Wild Robot began as a thought experiment: What would happen if an advanced robot were stranded in the wilderness? To answer that question I invented a robot character named Roz and began imagining how she’d handle that situation.
Nature is such an all-powerful force, physically and spiritually, that I thought it might have surprising effects on a robot. So one of the goals of my story was to show, step-by-step, how the wilderness slowly transformed Roz from being robotic to being unrobotic. And giving her some sort of animal family seemed like an essential part of her transformation.
Geese are known for imprinting on people, and it seemed believable to me that they might also imprint on robots. So I decided to have Roz adopt an orphaned gosling who would imprint on her and together they’d form a strange little family unit. Roz and Brightbill’s relationship was so interesting that it quickly took over the story. I couldn’t stop imagining all the unique challenges they’d face and all the unique lessons they’d learn. It might seem obvious what a gosling would gain from having a strong robot for a mother, but I began to realize just how much this robot could gain from her gosling son. Most parents will tell you they learn more from their children than from anyone else, and that’s true of these characters as well.
I’m asking a lot of my readers with this peculiar story. The biggest thing I’m asking is for them to care about a robotic protagonist. Hopefully Roz’s relationship with Brightbill will be interesting enough to keep everyone turning the pages.
Both Roz and Mr. Tiger, from your picture book, take great pleasure in “being wild.” How do you think middle grade readers should “be wild,” and is that something that adult gatekeepers really want to encourage? (Asked with a smile!)
I think children should act like children. And if that means sometimes being wild, excellent! However, children mimic the behavior of their parents, and parents these days are overworked and stressed out and obsessed with putting their children on the path to success. So my “wild” stories are partly designed to encourage parents to loosen up and enjoy life. If a child sees his parents living joyfully, he’ll grow up knowing that life is meant to be enjoyed, and that will guide him toward a happy and healthy adulthood. I mean, if a robot can recognize the value of letting loose, surely an uptight parent can do the same.
This article was featured in our free Be Tween enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.