Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is my favorite picture book of his), and I was ecstatic to see his first middle grade novel come out a few months ago. I've been trying to keep my finger on the Newbery pulse this year, and this one is definitely getting some mentions, although it doesn't seem to be a top contender.
It's the story of Roz, a robot who ends up being the lone survivor after a cargo ship sinks in the middle of the ocean. Her crate washes up on small, remote island, and some curious otters flip her switch and bring her to life for the first time.
Not knowing any different, she assumes that this island is where she is meant to be, but it's fairly obvious from the beginning that she is not equipped or designed for this kind of life. However, she's programmed to retain information and adapt as needed. And that's exactly what she does. She realizes that her shiny exterior does little to help her blend in with her surroundings. And she discovers that the language she was equipped to speak doesn't work with the animals of the island. Pretty soon she is camouflaged in dirt and plants and speaking fluent animal dialects . . . with a friendly tone of voice, no less.
But it's not until a tragic accident leaves a brand-new baby gosling an orphan that Roz and the animals finally learn to work together. And after that, well, that wild island is never quite the same.
I liked this book very much, but I'll warn you that it does have a bit of a slow start. Considering that the main character is a robot with no feelings and a limited personality in the beginning, I think that's understandable. It takes awhile to get to know the animals and build up the sort of momentum that creates drama and conflict. But it does eventually happen, and when it does, the story soars.
I thought Roz's character was expertly handled. Although the animals eventually care about her immensely (going so far as to even sacrifice their own lives to protect her) and she, in her own way, cares about them, she never loses her roboticness (robotity? is there a word for this?). I think it would be so easy to sort of turn her into a human (because that's what we, as humans, relate to!), but Peter Brown never allows this to happen. Roz learns how to get along with the animals and she makes it her mission to make their lives better, and it's these things that make us as readers really begin to cheer for her, but we never ever forget that she's a robot. When she malfunctions or breaks, it requires a mechanical or physical repair. When she's confronted with a problem, she looks at it from a very analytical, unemotional perspective.
For example, when the little gosling hatches from his egg, Roz is the first creature he sees, so he assumes she is his mother. When Roz takes the gosling to an old goose for advice, the whole exchange is quite amusing (and I wish I could write the whole thing right here), but at one point, the old goose says, "You do want him to survive, don't you?," and Roz says that yes, of course she wants him to survive. "But," she says, "I do not know how to act like a mother." "Oh, it's nothing," says the old goose, "you just have to provide the gosling with food and water and shelter, make him feel loved but don't pamper him too much, keep him away from danger, and make sure he learns to walk and talk and swim and fly and get along with other and look after himself. And that's really all there is to motherhood!"
Roz doesn't know how to do any of those things, but little by little, she learns that if the gosling says, "Mama! Food!," she should feed him and she finds out what that food should be. She learns how to keep him warm and safe. She learns how to let him grow up and become more independent. But she never has those instincts. She does those things because someone tells her to, and then her programming remembers them so that she can continue to apply them in the right situations. Even at the end of the book, she says something in a joking tone, and one of the characters says, "That's not funny!" and she says, "I am sorry for joking" and adjusts "her voice to a more serious tone." Turns out, being friends with a robot can be surprisingly endearing.
Lately I've become rather disenchanted with many of the new middle grade novels because they all seem rather the same: heavy and serious and packed with issues. And so I think that's another reason why I liked this book so much: it just felt different. I've never read anything like it, and that's a compliment.
Because I hadn't heard too much about it before I picked it up, I decided to read it on my own. However, in retrospect, it definitely was one I could have read to my kids or read along with Aaron. I'm pretty sure even five-year-old Bradley would have loved listening to it. So guess what's going to show up under the Christmas tree next month?