Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it fueled the imagination of Ben Hatke, and sparked his graphic novel Little Robot (Roaring Brook/First Second, Sept.).
This is the fourth graphic novel from Hatke, largely known for his Zita the Space Girl trilogy and his contributions to the Flight series of comics anthologies. In the partly wordless story, says the author, "a girl finds a cardboard box down by the river and she's very curious about the dome-shaped thing inside." The young heroine, who is mechanically inclined, flips a switch on top of the dome shape and a robot unfolds. After a temporary fright, she helps the robot right itself and they take a step together. "In that moment, she crosses the line to being responsible for this little thing," Hatke says. "It's an adventure, but also a meditation on friendship and summertime."
The project is the first he's crafted with "very beginning readers in mind," Hatke notes. It grew out of "a random visual of a little robot who had one piece fall off, and then it all fell apart." Hatke had been writing the story as a newspaper-style comic strip in his sketchbook and posting the strips on his blog for the past few years. "I did 30 of them and realized ‘this guy is definitely a character,'" he says. The robot appeared in an early draft of his 2014 picture book, Julia's House for Lost Creatures, "but then he drifted over into his own story."
Much of Little Robot is "drawn from life," notes Hatke, informed by lots of walks near his Shenandoah Valley home, and also helped along by a special art model—then six-year-old Julia, one of his five daughters. "While I was drawing, I'd ask Julia to do some gestural things and poses like squatting down, things that are very unique to how a child moves," he recalls. His children are a reliable test audience for his work now, says Hatke: "I'll read to them around the kitchen table, and eventually I'll say, ‘Let's have some dinner and finish the story later.' If they say, "No, no! Tell it now!' I know I've got something."
A first-timer at BEA, Hatke is looking forward to today's Uptown Stage graphic novel author event, 2–3 p.m., and Friday's CBC Speed Dating lunch. This afternoon, 4–5 p.m., he'll autograph copies of Little Robot at Table 4.
This article appeared in the May 27, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.