Role-reversal is a feature of many of Peter Brown’s award-winning picture books: Children are pets (terrible ones), tigers wear clothing (but reject them), city kids dream of living among flowering gardens. Imagining these topsy-turvy scenarios now accounts for the award-winning illustrator’s first middle-grade novel: The Wild Robot, which Little, Brown will publish in 2016.
“While working on The Curious Garden (2009), I spent a lot of time imagining how nature might survive in an unnatural setting, like a city, but as I played around with those ideas, I also imagined the opposite scenario: how unnatural things, like a robot, might survive in nature,” said Brown. “And when I pushed that scenario to its extreme, I had a story about a robot that crash-lands on a remote island and is forced to learn how to survive from the animals who live there.”
Brown tried for years to “squeeze the idea” into a picture book but eventually realized his robot needed more room. His editor, Alvina Ling, encouraged him. “I love when authors stretch themselves,” she said.
For Brown, writing has never been as unnatural as a tiger in clothing or a robot in the woods. “I have been writing my whole life, from little kid through high school and college. I always took creative writing classes,” he said. “But beginning in second grade, I had the label of the ‘arty kid,’ so I always identified as an artist more than as a writer.”
That focus began to shift after he got his first writing credit for his debut picture book, Flight of the Dodo (2005), and it intensified after he won an E.B. White Read-Aloud Award for Children Make Terrible Pets (2010).
“He probably revised Flight of the Dodo 20 times before I even brought it to an acquisition meeting, because he has always looked really hard at the words,” Ling recalled. “But after the E.B. White Award, I said to him, ‘You won an award for your writing!’ It felt like a big deal for both of us.”
He told Ling he was working on a novel two years ago. She offered him a contract for it, which he refused. “I was nervous. Even though I have written texts that are longer than picture book texts, it was all short stories. I had never attempted to write a novel,” Brown said. “I felt like I needed to finish a first draft before I signed anything.” Earlier this month, Ling acquired world rights to The Wild Robot, plus an untitled picture book from Brown’s agent, Paul Rodeen at Rodeen Literary Management.
For a visual artist, Brown admits his process involves spending a lot of time with his eyes closed. “I’m imagining the characters and visualizing the world I’m trying to create,” he said. “That was all the same for this book. But when I got my notepad out instead of drawing what I’d visualized, I wrote down words.”
Inquiring minds might be wondering: is there something in the water at the Society of Illustrators? Fellow Caldecott Honoree Lane Smith announced last month that he, too, is creating a middle-grade novel, and Ling previously helped author-illustrator Grace Lin make the transition from picture books to novels. “Peter asked me lots of questions about how Grace had gone about it,” Ling said. “Artists are so used to relying on their illustrations to tell the story. With Grace, I think in one of her early drafts of The Year of the Dog, there were no descriptions at all. I told her to rewrite with three descriptions per page. It turned out descriptions are what she’s really good at.” Lin won a 2012 Newbery Honor for her third middle-grade novel, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, also edited by Ling.
Now that Brown has added “novelist” to his résumé, he’s hooked. “I love picture books and I’m definitely going to make more,” he said, “but I think I could potentially turn The Wild Robot into a series and I think I’ll spend the rest of my career doing both novels and picture books. I want to write a YA novel some day, too, so I have to keep working on my writing chops.”