You may know Peter Brown as the author-illustrator of the very funny Children Make Terrible Pets, My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I Am Not) or the earnest and lovely The Curious Garden. In his first middle grade book The Wild Robot Brown asserts himself as a deft novelist, with a fresh twist on the classic survival story, told with insight and lots of heart.
The concept of a robot (Roz) waking up in the wilderness and learning to adapt is simple but genius. The novel unfolds as one might expect- animals are suspicious of robot, robot wins animals over, and in her hour of need those animals come to her aid- but the delight in this novel comes from Roz’s ingenuity and the Brown’s animal characters. At first the animals fear Roz, calling her unnatural and a monster. Roz patiently explains that she is a robot, not a monster, and wins over the creatures one by one by asking for their advice and assistance. She compliments opossum on his superb acting (i.e. playing dead) skills, enlists the beavers to help build her a lodge, takes gardening advice from the deer, etc.
Brown is very careful with his portrayal of animals. They are not so humanized that their natural instincts or qualities are ignored, but they are perhaps more cooperative than they would be in a nature documentary. Chitchat the squirrel is charmingly verbose and scatterbrained. Fink the fox is charming but sly. There are a number of truces the animals agree on- the daily Dawn Truce and a celebratory Party Truce- that allows natural enemies time and space to safely discuss island matters (what to do with Roz, how to survive a particularly harsh winter, etc). I love this concept. By providing the conceit of the truce, Brown is able to be true to fox, badger, pike, and bear’s natural hunting instincts outside the safe space.
The most central relationship- and the one that allows Roz to develop the deepest understanding of friendship, parenthood, and love- is between Roz and her adopted “son,” Brightbill the gosling. Following an accident in which Roz kills the rest of Brightbill’s family before he is hatched, she assumes responsibility of the gosling’s care. The reader watches Brightbill grow from a runt to a champion flyer. Much of the poignancy of the novel comes from these two, such as the scene where the young goslings are being chased in the water by a hungry pike and Roz is watching, helpless, or the scene where they decide to switch Roz off to see what happens.
The narrator reminds us that because she is a robot, Roz does not have emotions. Her delivery is neutral, bordering on dead-pan which is both funny and endearing. Because Roz doesn’t have feelings the reader feels protective of her, and our empathy is cranked up into overdrive. Roz’s goal is to fit into her community. When the animals debate what her purpose is, she states that perhaps she is meant to help others. She starts to imitate the animals and starts acting like she has emotions, and by the end of the book we believe she does have them.
Survival stories are not a new middle grade trope, but they seem to be popping up this year in a variety of re-imagined ways. In Pax we have a boy and a fox learning to survive without each other in environments completely outside of their element. Roz, never having other experiences, believes the island is her home and adjusts to it accordingly. For example, when Roz learns about camouflage she covers herself in mud and plants, resulting in a poignant illustration of a walking, robot-shaped garden. After an accident causes her to lose a foot, the animals help fashion her a new one out of wood, sap and vines. There is something about the camaraderie on the island reminded me of E.B. White, particularly The Trumpet of the Swan. There are also hints of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Giant and even Disney’s Bambi.
Brown’s prose is straightforward and without artifice. He does not milk emotional moments. At times he points out maxims or greater truths, but they are presented without fanfare. In this way he emulates Roz, but he also gets to the brutal truth of the animal world. There is no dressing up or philosophizing on good or bad, right or wrong. The world is what it is.
I would be remiss if i did not mention the gorgeous packaging featuring lush Pacific- Northwest greens and the very simple silhouette of Roz on the mountain. There are effective spot illustrations inside, though I found myself wishing they were in colour, or featured in tipped-in illustrated plates. The Wild Robot is a classic in the making and worthy of such luxury treatment. It has already garnered four starred reviews and will win over the hearts of readers as well. Like Roz, Peter Brown has entered into a new landscape and is not only surviving, but thriving. Justifiably so!
The Wild Robot is available now from Little, Brown.