12 November 2008

Robot Nightmares

Robot Dreams, author-illustrator Sara Varon, was a nominee for a 2007 Cybils Award as a Graphic Novel for Elementary/Middle Grade Readers. Its publisher has said that it “definitely appears very young at first glance, but then many of the reviews caught on that it has strange, unexpected depth to it.” Indeed, I think Robot Dreams is deep water indeed.

As this New York Magazine excerpt shows, Varon draws simple, uncluttered pictures using a thick, curvy line (cartoony!). She draws anthropomorphized animals and robots with big round eyes (cute!). She uses very few words (though Robot Dreams isn't truly a "wordless" book, as I discussed back here). And she tells her story in comics form (comics!). Therefore, this is a book for younger readers, right?

Wrong. Robot Dreams is the story of a dysfunctional, asymmetric relationship between Dog, who makes impossible demands on all his friends, and Robot, who suffers horribly because of Dog's thoughtlessness yet can't stop yearning to please him.

The story starts with Dog building Robot from a kit and taking Robot to a dog beach. Dog doesn't realize that playing in the water is not good for Robot. Robot lies on the sand, paralyzed with rust. Night falls. Dog doesn't know what to do, and so goes home. When Dog returns the next day, the beach is closed for the season.

Dog tries to make other friends. Duck is useful for getting a kite out of a tree, but then flies south for the winter. The Anteaters are fun for sledding, but they, well, eat ants. The Snowman whom Dog builds is pleasant, and even brings Dog into acquaintance with Penguin, but come spring Snowman melts, and Dog feels nothing in common with Penguin anymore. Not one of Dog's friends is perfect!

Meanwhile, Robot is lying on the beach, fantasizing about being rescued by Dog, then about being rescued by anybody. These are the "robot dreams" of the title. In reality, Rabbits break off one of Robot's legs, Robins build a nest in Robot's chest, and Monkey gathers up Robot's pieces and sells them to a scrapyard.

In June, a month after Monkey has been over the beach, Dog returns and can't find Robot. Dog ends up buying and building Second Robot to be a perfect friend.

Meanwhile, Raccoon has bought the scraps of original Robot and built them into Robot Radio. Raccoon and Robot Radio dance together in comradeship and joy. Yet when Robot Radio sees Dog walking on the street with Second Robot, Robot can't help but play music for its old friend. Dog hears the music, not turning to notice the source, and whistles a happy tune.

I'm not saying that Dog doesn't feel horrible about what happened to original Robot. Dog really does feel guilty. And Dog is careful to stop Second Robot from going into the water and rusting. But I don't think Dog ever learns that being a good friend means compromising sometimes.

Publishers Weekly called Robot Dreams an "elegiac and lovely graphic novel about friendship," and said in particular that "Robot is an avatar for all children who wonder why they aren't receiving the love they think they deserve."

To those children I'd say: Give up on Dog. You deserve much better.


Anonymous said...

I read Robot Dreams a while ago, but it wasn't until after reading your synopsis, that I finally realized that Dog treats Robot the way humans often treat dogs. So is this really a dead dog book saved by reincarnation?

J. L. Bell said...

I, too, was struck by how Dog is looking for unconditional love.

The classic "dead dog" (or deer, or other animal) books tell stories about how mortality in inescapable. Robot never really dies, though.

If we ever develop robots that have an emotional component, then we'll probably program them to be as loyal as Robot is in this story. Then we might have to face the question of whether we treat them like old appliances or like human servants—or, as your comment implies, like animals.

Sam said...

I understand and share your displeasure with Dog's behavior, but the message I took from the book was of the beauty of Forgiveness. If Robot's love was large enough to allow forgiveness, then I was willing to forgive Dog, too.

I'm glad others have found depth in this book. It's frankly the sort of depth that I have rarely found outside of George Eliot novels.

J. L. Bell said...

There's a moment at the end when Robot is chagrined to see Dog with Second Robot. But Robot doesn't seem angry. (Maybe Robot's not built for anger.)

At that point, I imagine, Robot could rush out onto the street and confront Dog. Or Robot could look around Raccoon's home, feel happy to be there, and leave Dog behind. Instead Robot goes to the window and plays music for Dog and Second Robot.

Yes, that's forgiveness, but it also seems to be ongoing hopeless devotion, at least a bit.

And if I were Second Robot, I'd watch my back.

J. L. Bell said...

Good Comics for Kids hosted a very interesting discussion among librarians about whether Robot Dreams is a book for ages 6 to 9. Oprah said so, so it must be true, right?

Eva Volin wrote, "I do think a six-year-old can read Robot Dreams and come away satisfied. I think a 16-year-old will be more satisfied. I think a 36-year-old will be even more satisfied."

Anonymous said...

Intrigued by this discussion, I read Robot Dreams last night. It made me very uncomfortable. I was not sure whether my heart was with Robot -- who seemed to keep trying despite being literally torn apart -- or whether I was supposed to be drawn to Dog, who, as the saying goes, "kept trying the same things and expecting different results." Friend not good enough? OK! Make -- again literally -- a new friend exactly the same as the old and expect everything to be better this time. (You can tell that I don't trust Dog to remember about the water/rusting sequence more than once.)

J.L. used the word "dysfunctional."
I think he's got it. Or, to put my mutterings in a more positive, albeit late '60's, way: "Love people, use things." This book doesn't seem to have grasped that message, and I would have no idea how to talk about this book with a child.

Oh! I have it! The message is, be careful with your robot or you will have to get a new one! (Now _there's_ a high-level message.)