With 10 picture books under his belt, Caldecott Honor artist Peter Brown has now tried his hand at a middle-grade novel. The Wild Robot, which tells the story of a robot who finds herself out of her element in the wilderness, has already received several pre-publication starred reviews. Brown took time out of his schedule of school visits in the Indianapolis area to speak with PW about the challenges of writing and illustrating in a new genre.
How was the process of writing a middle-grade novel different from writing a picture-book manuscript?
When I talk to people not in the book world, they can’t understand how there can be a difference between writing picture books and novels, but of course it’s huge. First of all, you can’t use pictures to tell the story – and pictures are my bread and butter. So my number-one challenge was self-confidence that I could do this, and dealing with the emotional ups and downs of that.
More practically, I used the same exercises as I do when creating a picture book. I start by story mapping: I write all my ideas for the story all over a piece of paper. Then I start circling them to compare and link them, and see what needs to be connected and what needs to be spaced apart. This is a nice comfortable visual way of organizing for me, and it worked well for the novel. Some of the ideas I write down are terrible but at least I can get them out of my head.
Sometimes an entire story line comes to me in one big arc, like with Children Make Terrible Pets. But for this book I did at least 250 story maps over the course of a year. This is my weird way of plotting. In fact for this book, I did a kind of reverse-engineering when it comes to plot. The book began with a rough sketch I did of a robot in a tree. I loved this idea of a robot in the wilderness. So I started with the end goal of a robot at peace in the wilderness. Then I thought: how does she get there? I went through a lot of different possibilities. I worked the same way with Mr. Tiger Goes Wild; I had the end goal of an animal becoming wild.
At the end of the story mapping for The Wild Robot, I had 80 plot points. And one of my goals was to keep it as succinct as possible. I had to get to the point right away every time. Also, science fiction has so many loopholes, I had to be especially careful everything was air-tight.
What about character development in a novel as distinct from a picture book? What kinds of challenges did you face in developing Roz the robot, who at one point in the book says: “I have not grown bigger, but I have changed very much”?
The changes in Roz were part of the story mapping. I wanted to show character transformation, from robot to un-robot. I wanted to show Roz becoming animalistic, wild, a little weird. In every chapter she changes just a little bit, but by the end she has changed enormously.
But I did worry about how to make readers relate to a robot. So I created all these different animal characters for people to relate to as a way of making up for Roz’s lack of warmth. I think a lot of people can relate to Brightbill [the gosling Roz adopts].
Everything Roz does is in an attempt to survive. At first she is just trying not to get battered, but as the book goes on her survival needs get more subtle. She begins to realize that kindness is a survival skill. Helping others helps them help her. This could be seen as selfish, but who cares what the motivation is? It’s still kindness. This is one of the morals, or themes, I was trying to work into the book.
Illustrating a novel is not like a picture book in which the pictures often tell half the story, so how was the illustration process different for you? How did you decide what to illustrate?
As I was working on the words, here and there an image would pop into my head. For example, I knew I wanted to have an image of Roz standing in a tree, watching the geese fly away. I also knew that I didn’t want readers to go more than five pages or so without an illustration so sometimes I just crunched the numbers – okay, I need a picture here or what do I want to illustrate on these pages. So between the strong images that came into my head and the numbers, it worked out.
This book was a little easier to illustrate than a picture book because each illustration doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting of storytelling. My goal was to have simple and moody art that was more decoration. And because all the interior art was black and white, that was a different challenge: how pretty can I make this book without color?
For my past few books I’ve started by painting simple shapes with India ink, sometimes pencil, but usually India ink. Then I scan those images into Photoshop and collage them together to make more interesting shapes. For example if you look closely at Roz, you can see she is made up of circles, squares and rectangles. I like putting simple shapes together in interesting ways, and the India ink gives a nice texture to the illustration.
You said in a 2014 interview that you might turn The Wild Robot into a series, and your ending certainly suggests that possibility. Have you decided to follow up on that idea, or do you have ideas for other novels?
That’s a bit of a funny territory at the moment because I haven’t signed a contract for a second book, but I definitely have it figured out. I have the story arc in mind. So it will probably be a two-book series – possibly three, but more likely two. I’m too into this character, and this world, it give it up yet.
I’d definitely like to write more middle-grade novels, and I think I’ll probably write a YA novel sometimes. I’m working on another picture book, too, but I’m not ready to talk about that yet. I was speaking at a school today, and somebody asked how long it took to write The Wild Robot. I told the kids that I had the original idea eight years ago, but I didn’t feel I was a good enough writer to do it yet. I think that really resonated with them. Some of them said they also had good ideas but didn’t feel like they were good enough yet to do them. It was a luxury for me to have all those years to work on my skills so I could come to the point where I could write The Wild Robot. So I feel very lucky to have a lot of freedom in my creative decisions at this point. I can work on whatever captures my attention.
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown. Little, Brown, $16.99 Apr. 5 ISBN 978-0-316-38199-4