Running Wild with Robots

Peter Brown is an American writer and illustrator. He is the recipient of the Caldecott Medal for his illustration of Creepy Carrots (written by Aaron Reynolds) and the author-illustrator of picture books Mr Tiger Goes Wild, My Teacher is a Monster, Fred Gets Dressed and The Curious Garden.

His novel series about Roz, the Wild Robot has garnered lots of critical praise and many fans. In this episode, he talks with Nikki Gamble about the third novel in the series, The Wild Robot Protects.

Interview Transcript

Nikki Gamble: 

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of In The Reading Corner. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Peter Brown. Our listeners and viewers will know Peter’s work very well. Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is a huge favourite in UK classrooms, as is My Teacher is a Monster. And, of course, the Wild Robot books. To date, we’ve had two novels, The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes. And these have really created a devoted fan base for Roz, the robot who holds a special place in our hearts.

The third book in the series, The Wild Robot Protects, is the most recently published. And here to help me delve a little bit deeper into that story, I’d like to welcome author and illustrator Peter Brown.

Before we get on to the most recent book, I’d like to set it up by introducing the wild robot herself. The thing that you’ve done with these stories… is juxtapose two things that we don’t normally expect to see side by side: nature alongside technology. These are often presented as diametrically opposite, but in all of the wild robot stories, we have a more nuanced approach.

Tell us a little bit about how that idea came about. 

Peter Brown: 

Yeah, you nailed it. That was what was so intriguing to me was to take these two concepts that seem at odds with each other or almost like opposites. A robot seems like a pretty unnatural thing. So you take it, and you put it in perhaps the most natural place you could imagine, like in a wild forest on an island and the ocean, and they seem so out of place. But those fish-out-of-water stories have always really been appealing to me. This one was especially interesting because it allowed me to explore so many of my favourite subjects like technology and science. I’m really fascinated by animals, by wildlife, by the wilderness and by the idea of wildness both in characters and in ourselves. I think a lot of times, we forget that human beings are technically animals. We have some animal instincts, and at certain times, they show themselves. Little kids especially, I feel, can really relate to animals because they’re crawling and squawking and climbing on things, And so this story really was just a dream come true for me because I got to combine all of my favourite subjects and explore them in interesting ways and find obvious differences, but also some pretty surprising similarities between technology and the natural world.

Nikki Gamble: 

There’s so much of what you’ve said that I want to come back to and dig a little deeper. The first one is about humans and wildness. Because I think some of the most exhilarating experiences that we have as human beings are when we allow ourselves to go a little bit wild, whether that’s in nature or our behaviour.

How do you like to get in touch with the wild side of yourself?

Peter Brown: 

It’s funny. I think a lot of us really struggle with this subject and grapple with it because we’re brought up in a society where we’re told constantly to control ourselves. And it can be hard to let loose, even if you really want to. We’ve trained ourselves to be buttoned up. But I find that getting myself into a wild environment really helps me feel in touch with that side of me,, I’m never happier than going out for a hike in nature. Fresh air, beautiful landscapes. Hopefully, you see some wild animals And that’s enough for me to really feel at peace, and that’s the sense that I get when I’m out in the wild place.

I suppose there are dangers out there, and a hike out in the wilderness can turn dangerous if you’re not careful. Fortunately, I haven’t had too many bad experiences.

So I’ve gone so far as to leave city living behind. I’ve lived in Los Angeles. I’ve lived in New York City. I’ve lived in Philadelphia. I spent six months in London, and now I live in a house in the woods. And I’m really happy there because every day I get to go outside and breathe fresh air and hike, walk through the woods. It’s not for everybody, but it really is just what I need.

Nikki Gamble: 

That edge of danger, I think, is an important part of it. For me, wildness is wild weather. I love storms. I think it’s about seeing something that is bigger than yourself. You can’t control it.

Anyway, back to robots.  So, the design of your robot, Roz, is largely what we’ve come to expect a robot to look like. There’s no reason that a robot couldn’t look more natural, but we recognize her almost as an iconic robot. Tell me a little bit about designing the look of her.

Peter Brown: 

Yeah, that was very intentional. I studied illustration. I’ve worked in animation. I illustrate children’s books. I’m perfectly capable of designing and illustrating a much more complicated robot, but I decided to keep Roz’s design simple. Because what I was playing with was people’s expectations, I wanted people to recognize what they were looking at immediately. They’re looking at a robot in a place you would not expect to find a robot. On the cover, Roz stands on a rocky coastline with forests behind her. I wanted to immediately tell the reader, that I’m taking something you think you know by showing an ordinary-looking robot, and I’m immediately telling you it will be in a place where you’re not expecting to see a robot. So, I needed Raz to be stereotypical in a way. Because then I would spend the rest of the story tearing down that stereotype. She starts off acting, and gradually, I walk the reader through this progression of watching Roz turn wilder and wilder, learn from the animals, learn from the environment, change her behaviour, change the way she speaks, learn to communicate with the animals, learn not to clean herself, let herself get dirty, let herself become almost camouflaged to blend into the environment. And we see her become almost more natural and wilder than a person ever could. And the reason that’s exciting is because she starts off so far from that place. 

Nikki Gamble: 

It’s interesting because the notion of wildness in science fiction that deals with robots is not a new idea, but usually, wildness means going rogue. So again, you’re giving us the opposite definition of what it means to be wild.

Peter Brown:

I read a lot of science fiction. I watch sci-fi movies and TV shows. You’re right; we’ve come to expect robots to rise up against humans. That’s a pretty familiar trope, and I didn’t want to go down that path. We know that story, and we’ve seen it a million times. I think in the back of our minds, a lot of us have a little anxiety about what the future of technology will be like; we’re not quite sure where artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet or even social media is headed.

And I understand that, but I think it doesn’t have to be that way. We could choose to go down a different path. I think it’s possible that robots could genuinely be a force for good in the world. And so I’ve created this character to explore how that might unfold, the opposite of the robots rising up. It’s a robot actually rising up in a way that I wish more people would do by taking responsibility for things and being kind, no matter the situation. 

Nikki Gamble: 

In your head, is she programmed with that kindness, or does she learn it?

Peter Brown: 

In my head, she’s programmed to be a very versatile robot. She might be asked to do farming. She might be asked to do babysitting. She might ask to perform surgery.  And so she’s got this down-the-middle, neutral personality. But she’s capable of learning all sorts of complicated things, with the idea that she’s always in service to humanity. To be able to interact with people, she has to have a pleasant personality.

And then from there, she learns all these unexpected lessons out there in the wildness, which reinforces the idea to her that kindness is like a survival skill, right? She’s struggling to survive at the beginning of the story. And she realises that if she’s good to the animals around her, they will eventually return the favour and help her survive for longer. And so, not only is kindness, its own reward, but it’s also a survival strategy.

Nikki Gamble: 

One of the things that people say is the difference between artificial intelligence and humans is that humans and animals have the capacity for emotion. But Roz isn’t emotionless. You use words like worried when you describe her – worry is an emotion.

Peter Brown: 

Yeah, I dance around this subject a little bit by using phrases like she felt something like curiosity, right?

I’m not necessarily saying she genuinely feels the same sense of curiosity that a human might feel, but she feels her version of that emotion. If you want to go down the rabbit hole far enough, that could be just a bunch of ones and zeros and her sort of binary programming that come together to create in her own way something like curiosity. Instead, I focus on her actions. She behaves kind, and she behaves concerned and worried, whether she’s experiencing those feelings the way we would. I think she is probably not, but she understands the effects that her behaviour has on those around her. And so she’s acting in a way to let the characters know that she cares about them, to let them know that she’s worried about them. I think she changes and adapts and evolves and maybe develops a bit more emotionality than you would expect.

I love this subject because, at first, you might think if she’s just pretending to care, that seems wrong. That seems strange. I don’t want a character who pretends to care. I want a character who genuinely cares. To which I say, at the end of the day, I don’t know if it really matters. If she chooses time and again to show kindness, curiosity, empathy and generosity, then maybe she really does feel something like those emotions.

Nikki Gamble: 

With humans, I’m guessing those emotions are just electrical impulses anyway,

Peter Brown: 

Exactly, yeah, and this is where surprising similarities come into play between the natural world and the robot world, right?

We’re all programmed in a way. Our own instincts are like computer programs. So many animals do so many things in predictable ways because of their instincts. We know certain birds will fly south for winter. We know they’ll group together in, packs or in herds. They have a lot of predictable behaviours, and I’m not convinced that they’re all super conscious about what they’re doing.

Nikki Gamble: 

Programmed animal behaviour, what a nice segue Because at the beginning of The Wild Robot Protects, we have the geese returning to the island. It’s a fantastic example of programmed behaviour – how they manage to return to their home. And I love that opening to this story. For one thing, I love to hear the sound of geese flying. It’s so magical.

Peter Brown: 

I agree. I mentioned that I live out in nature. I live in a state called Maine, which is in the northeasternmost state in the United States up near Canada. We have this house out in the woods, and there are a couple of rivers nearby. And we happen to be on a migration path for all these birds.

And it is wonderful to hear them coming and going and flying over and looking up the window and seeing them flying by. I knew I would enjoy it, but I have the satisfaction that I feel from hearing and seeing birds passing by and wondering about the kinds of adventures that they’ve had and what they’ve seen on their journeys.

And it’s really been a delightful part of our new lifestyle up there in the woods. 

Nikki Gamble: 

Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose is set very close to where I live on the East Coast, and we also get migrating geese coming down from Norway and the Arctic Circle.

Anyway, we’ve got to tell people about The Wild Robot Protects. Perhaps give us a brief plot synopsis without giving too much away.

Peter Brown: 

So, the first book, The Wild Robot, was about Roz making herself a home in the wilderness on an island. The second book, The Wild Robot Escapes, is about Roz trying to find her way back to her home after she’s been taken away for reasons that I won’t get into at the end of the first book.

And this third book is about Roz trying to protect her home. I started realizing just how much home was an important concept in all these stories. I wanted Roz to have a sense of protectiveness over this place and want to take care of her friends and her family. But protect it from what? 

I started thinking about the kinds of dangers that would maybe come to an island, the different kinds of pollution.  A lot of rubbish finds its way into the ocean, and oftentimes, it’ll gather in giant clusters and clumps of trash floating in the ocean. I thought about stuff like oil spills. Big tanker ships sometimes have accidents and oil spills that can travel for miles and do a lot of damage on coastlines and to animals. And there are naturally occurring dangers that could possibly come to an island. There’s a thing called a red tide, which is algae that can grow and be toxic and spread far and wide and do a lot of damage.

And so, I invented a mysterious form of pollution, which the animals in the story called the poison tide. The story is about this poison tide flowing through the ocean, flowing past the island and surrounding the island, and doing a ton of damage around the coastline. And the interior as well. One of the big parts of this story that I wanted to emphasise was how connected everything is.

Just because there are problems in the ocean doesn’t mean those problems aren’t going to show themselves on land or even in the sky. Roz is watching as her home island is gradually deteriorating due to this poison tide.

And so she takes it upon herself to figure out how to solve this problem, and she goes on this long journey to the far north into what is basically the Arctic Ocean, to the source of the poison tide, to figure out what’s causing it and how to stop it. Along the way, she has this incredible journey where she meets all sorts of interesting animals that you would find in the North, like puffins and walruses. And she encounters an interesting octopus at one phase of the story.

A friend of mine who’s a science journalist read this book, and she described it as a hero’s journey for a female robot. And I love that.

Nikki Gamble:

The mysterious poison tide and the fact that Roz is searching for the ancient shark make this feel like a mythic story. We know that Greenland sharks, for instance, have incredibly long lifespans. And Roz is going searching for the ancient wisdom that can help to put this right.

Peter Brown: 

You’re right about the Greenland shark. I was thinking about the different kinds of animals that Roz might encounter, and I was aware a few years ago of a news story that came out about how some scientists discovered a Greenland shark that they estimated to be about 500 years old, and I started thinking imagine what that shark has seen. Imagine the changes it’s experienced. From the ocean temperature rising to the ice caps melting, there is less ice under which it can hide and swim and hunt. Just imagine the kinds of ships it’s seen –  the evolution of the shipping industry from old wooden sailboats and ships to modern-day submarines and tanker ships and battleships. A 500-year-old shark would have witnessed a really incredible slice of human technological history. , and so that character became really important to the story for all those interesting reasons. 

But I also liked the idea that because the shark was so old, she would have a mythical reputation. Animals have heard of her throughout the North, throughout the ocean. And maybe across the whole world, people know about this ancient shark who’s seen it all. Who survives it all, and they have a certain respect for this character. And so, the shark becomes a leader of the ocean animals. 

The shark knows that she has this power over the animals, and she can basically gather armies if she needs to. And she thinks that this is, the time has come. There’s a line that the humans have crossed, and the shark decides that she wants to take revenge. Then Roz, of course, finds herself in this awkward position of trying to prevent this battle but also wanting to stop the poison tide.

And so, once again, Roz faces incredible moral dilemmas. There’s no real right or easy answer, and to me, that’s interesting. I love that kids are so excited about these stories because they’re excited about the difficult parts of life. It’s not black and white. There’s no villain – none of these stories have a villain. And yet there’s a lot of tension and a lot of trouble. 

Nikki Gamble:

There’s a scene where Roz is crossing the ocean.  She stops for her first night in the ocean, and she sees an amazing event. The micro creatures, with their magical bioluminescence, come up from the depths. I absolutely love that scene. I could visualise it so clearly from the way that you wrote it. 

Peter Brown: 

That’s great. So, there’s a term for that – vertical migration.

We’re familiar with migrating animals like geese and different kinds of deer like elk, and in Africa, wildebeest go on these great migrations. But the greatest migrations of all turn out to be in the ocean. And they oftentimes involve the smallest animals imaginable, these microorganisms, these bioluminescent little creatures. Every night, they rise to the surface, and every day, they sink back into the depths, up and down, every single day, trillions, probably quadrillions; who knows how many of these creatures are doing this around the world, all the time, and most of us aren’t really aware of it, but it’s totally fascinating to me. I wanted to introduce that idea to readers. Roz’s brain is filled with all sorts of information, and maybe back there somewhere, she’s aware of this vertical migration that happens, but she’s never seen it before.

And so it’s exhilarating for her to see this phenomenon with her own two eyes. 

Nikki Gamble: 

I find that interesting because she’s experiencing a sense of wonder rather than just collecting information.

Something else which resonates with the world that we’re living in is that many people don’t seem so keen to do anything about it if it doesn’t impact their lives. And some of the land animals take the view that they live on land, so why should they worry about what’s happening in the sea?

Peter Brown: 

Yes. Nothing frustrates me more than people who can’t appreciate a problem until it directly affects them.

As an author and an artist, I think a lot of us are incredibly empathetic just naturally. I think it comes with the nature of the work that we do. And so, I feel intensely affected emotionally by the suffering of other people, by environmental crises, by the suffering of animals. I realise as I get older that not everybody’s that way. And it’s really a shame because I feel as if everybody felt like I did. Many of these problems wouldn’t have gotten as bad as they have because everybody would want to take more action to solve them.

The truth of the matter is I don’t blame people for not taking action because these problems are so huge that, as far as I’m concerned, this is really for governments to take action, but people can encourage their government and their representatives to take that kind of action.

These aren’t problems we can solve by recycling our soda cans. These are too big, and we have to work together. The countries of the world have to find a way to take this stuff seriously. And so, you see that on a smaller scale in the story. Animals who are falling into that same kind of pattern of not really caring because it doesn’t affect them directly, without realising that eventually, it will, and by that time, it could be too late. And so, you’re better off taking action early if possible. Roz knows this. She sees the writing on the wall, and she’s not going to wait around for things to get worse and worse. She takes off as soon as she can to solve the problem, I should say, not to abandon the situation.

She takes off to solve the problem as soon as she can. Yeah. 

Nikki Gamble: 

Which brings us back to technology. In quite a lot of science fiction, technology is portrayed as the enemy. But technology will be the solution to getting us out of this situation. People can’t do it on their own. There needs to be innovation and scientific solutions. 

Peter Brown: 

Yes, I’m trying to create a world in these stories where technology is just carrying out the wishes of the humans in control of that technology. The robots can be used for good, and they are. Roz is a robot, and she’s obviously doing all sorts of good things. There’s no reason all the other robots couldn’t do the same. They’re following orders. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on humanity to make the decisions of how they want to use their technology and oftentimes, in these stories anyway, humanity, like in the real world, is a little distracted by all the other things in their lives. It takes this wild robot, to bring things to their attention. At which point, hopefully, they take these issues more seriously, and then direct their robots to do the right thing, 

Nikki Gamble: 

At one point, Roz calls the humans robotic because they just follow orders.

You’re dealing with other issues, too, about the impact, for instance, on the movement of people or animals in this case. The sea otters arrive at the island and want to inhabit the spaces that the beavers think belong to them, and the beavers want the sea otters to go to these new, less attractive ponds that have been dug to store the water. So, this resonates with the perception of human migration.

Peter Brown: 

It sure is. I was absolutely thinking about environmental refugees when I was thinking about those scenes in The Wild Robot Protects.  It’s only going to get worse as the climate crisis worsens. More people are going to be displaced, and you’re going to have more of these culture clashes where folks from one area move someplace else out of desperation. And the people who live in that other place don’t necessarily want them there. This has happened since the beginning of time, but it will happen more and more as these crises continue, and we better be ready because it’s nobody’s fault. Certainly not the people being displaced.

They’re the last people to be blamed. And yet they’re going to be really facing some. unpleasant circumstances. 

Nikki Gamble: 

Let’s talk a little bit about the writing style. You write very pared-back, very economical, short chapters, incredibly short chapters. There are 60+ chapters in the book. Some of them are a couple of pages, a page, or half a page, long. Was this about making the story accessible?

Peter Brown: 

I love this question. It’s a combination of things. 

Before I wrote the first Wild Robot novel, I had written and illustrated quite a few picture books. That was really my thing. I was comfortable with the picture book text. Picture book texts are a couple of hundred words typically. And that was comfortable for me.

And then I started working on this novel, this big story, and I was really scared because I had never done anything like it before. I was nervous that I was going to let down the story by not being able to write it well enough.

And so, I decided to make things simple. I decided not to try to be poetic and flowery with my language but to write directly, get to the point and move on quickly. Part of that was short chapters. Each chapter was about the length of a text for a picture book. And because I can write a picture book text, I’m not quite as intimidated because. So, I started writing these short chapters, and that really worked for me creatively.

But it also helped me to focus my energy because every chapter had a purpose. Before I started writing, I had an outline of all these little moments that needed to happen in my story. And each of those moments I turned into its own chapter. The first book has 80 chapters because my outline had 80 plot points.

There was another thought in my mind while I was writing, which is that when I was a kid. I had a little trouble reading, I struggled to visualise the stories I was reading. If I couldn’t see it in my imagination, I couldn’t follow the story. I was a decent student, but I struggled in this regard because so many of the tests I would take were about reading and essay and then writing your answers about the essays.

I would read that essay, and it would go right through my head, and I wouldn’t be able to make sense of it and answer questions properly. I was thinking about that and how as a young person, I didn’t read a whole lot because I didn’t think I was good at reading. I was slow, and I thought being a slow reader meant being a bad reader. And I thought, If I were a kid reading The Wild Robot, I would want there to be short, direct chapters, concise language. I would want the words to tell the story in a visual way that I could see in my own mind.

And so, I really wrote this story for young readers who are like me, who might struggle a little bit to visualise what they’re reading. One of the biggest compliments I get from kids who read this book is how clearly they can see what’s happening in the story.

Nikki Gamble

But pared-back writing can be incredibly poetic because you take away all the noise, and you’re left with a concentrated and profound sentence.

There’s a chapter, chapter 28, if memory serves me correctly, called The Observations. It’s written as single lines. I think it’s a poem.

Peter Brown: 

You’re right. As soon as those words left my mouth, I thought to myself maybe that wasn’t quite the right way to phrase it. 

The first book had basically a poem called The Observations. It was 11 or 12 lines describing different things that were happening on the island. Each line has its own little moment in the island’s life. It doesn’t advance the story a whole lot, but it captures the feeling of being in that place. I loved that chapter so much that I decided to do that in every book.

The Wild Robot Escapes has two chapters like that: one in the first half of the story when she rises on a farm and one in the second half of the story when she’s travelling through civilisation. And then again, I do it in The Wild Robot Protects because here she is in this ocean, and there are all these new kinds of things to see and hear and smell. I love the idea that we take a little moment to appreciate all the different things going on around her.

Nikki Gamble: 

Tell us about the voice that you write in. Technically, it’s what I would call, the transferred storyteller voice, as in every now and then, you remind us that you’re telling us the story and that you know there’s a who you are speaking to directly.

Peter Brown: 

When I was working on the first book, The Wild Robot, I was nervous about having a main character who was a robot. I was worried that readers would have difficulty caring about the character.

I am asking kids to care about a robot, who ends up becoming a single mum, raising a son, and struggling through the process of learning how to care for this little, delicate little creature.

I was like, man, this is a lot to ask of young readers. And I thought, how can I make sure, as best I can, that they’re really going to care about this character? I tried every trick I could think of. And one of them was having the narrator be a comforting voice, especially during some of the more difficult scenes, (there are some battle scenes at the end of the first book). There are some uncomfortable moments when Roz and Bright Bill discover all these dead robots. And they talk about death and life. And those are heavy subjects. 

I thought, if the narrator is there to talk to the reader, holding their hand through some of these moments, it might be another little way that I could help readers through those tough moments.

And so once I started experimenting with having the narrator talk to the readers, it just felt so charming and comforting. And so that became part of the style of the writing.

And the truth is I’m the narrator, right? I care about the readers.  I’m introducing them to a lot of interesting ideas. Some of them will be new to them. Some of them will be hard for them. I’ve heard from many parents who have adopted kids, and they talked to me about how these books have really helped them talk to their adopted kids about their families.

Nikki Gamble:

 Let’s talk about the illustration. Illustrating a novel is different from illustrating a picture book.

 Let’s start with the title page. 

Peter Brown: 

One of the things that I thought was so interesting about the environments that we’re seeing in the new book was the lighting, right? The way that light filters through water in, say, a kelp forest. Just the way that it fades from light to dark, the way that certain streaks of light shine down through the leaves and the foliage of the kelp. I just thought that was magical.

The art in the other books is quite flat and quite simple. But because the ocean has this sort of depth to it, there was really no way for me to illustrate these scenes without exploring the lighting, and they ended up becoming more complicated visually than some of the illustrations in the earlier books.

Nikki Gamble: 

That’s fascinating because the word I’ve got down here is layered, exactly as you are describing.

How exactly is the artwork rendered? Is it all digital?

Peter Brown: 

The art all starts on paper. First, I sketch the scenes on paper to figure out what I want to illustrate. Then, I’ll move on to making more polished sketches in Photoshop on my computer. When it comes to the finished artwork that you see in the book, I paint shapes on paper with black ink. I might draw shapes or do the hand lettering.

The title is hand-lettered with a pencil on paper. So I end up with all these little shapes that I draw and paint on paper, and then I scan those into my computer, and I start layering them together to come back to that word layering. I layer them over top of each other to build this scene, and then I might use Photoshop to add a few little extra details. The lighting is a little tricky, so it’s helpful to use Photoshop to get those gradations just right. So, it’s a mixture of traditional media and digital media.

Nikki Gamble: 


I wanted to talk a little bit about how illustration and text work together. You’ve got a number of pages where you cut through the page with the illustration, and it looks really dynamic. There’s one with the hydros that come straight across the page. And others with the geese flying around. So, how did that work between you and the designer, and how the manuscript is laid out? 

Peter Brown:

It’s not easy. I made my life a little harder than it needed to be doing this type of thing where the art interacts with the text so much. because there’s this rule that I didn’t know about until I started working on The Wild Robot, which is the last page of any chapter in the book has to have at least five lines of text on it.

So think about that. That means if I have a chapter that ends with a page where there are only three lines of text, I have to either get rid of three lines of text to get rid of that little section or add two lines of text to get to that five lines of text that are required for the last page of the chapter.

So that’s a challenge in itself because a lot of the chapters end up in funny places where it’s not quite right, and so I end up having to delete something or add something to make it work. 

Add on top of that illustrations like this that go through the text and force the text to do all sorts of funny things, that end up making all sorts of awkward situations at the end of the chapter. It’s been such a pain. But as my editor says, it’s worth the effort because the effect is really satisfying. To have the art play with a text like this is really fun and interesting.

Nikki Gamble: 

I love the use of a diagonal in a book like this because it’s dynamic. It gives you a sense of a lot of movement.

Peter Brown: 

And this scene, because these giant schools of fish, seem to all be communicating in some way, turning, and twisting at the same time. I wanted to try to capture that sense that these fish are almost like a single organism winding through the water,

Nikki Gamble: 

The little vignettes sometimes don’t get the attention when people are critiquing a book. But they’re so important, like this beautiful image of a jellyfish. 

Peter Brown: 

Yeah. I love nature.

The truth is, after high school, when I was applying to colleges and universities, I planned to go to a college to study art, but I didn’t know if I was good enough to get into a decent art college. And so, my backup plan was actually to study zoology. I grew up watching David Attenborough. And I just was so in love with those documentaries. 

So, when I have opportunities like this to illustrate an animal, maybe one that kids aren’t as familiar with, especiallym it’s not perfectly anatomically correct, but I want to capture the feeling of that animal, the sort of sense of the tentacles and of the lighting, because the light filters through jellyfish in really interesting ways.

Nikki Gamble: 

Let’s look at the double-page spread with a single illustration and the effect that it has when you turn the page. It’s interesting how that affects the pacing of the story. 

Peter Brown:

I come from a background of making picture books and thinking about compositions. This is not a picture book. Readers need to be able to read the text and get everything they need from it. I want the illustrations to add to the experience. And so, in this case, I was trying to give a sense of scale, right? Roz is probably about the size of a person. But here she is on the sea floor somewhere in the ocean. And I just wanted to hint at the sense of scale, right? There’s this big ocean, and suddenly, this robot who’s taken up So much space in our minds looks awfully tiny.

We learn that there are all sorts of microorganisms and things that are living even in places like this. But at this moment, Roz feels alone.

I wanted to capture that sense of mystery, that sense of openness and. darkness, but then she’s got this shaft of light beaming out from her headlights, 

And it’s just boom, here’s Roz. She’s here. She’s ready. She’s on the March. 

They were talking about putting maybe white text over the black space, and I immediately shot that down because I thought, no, this is a moment. This is the first time we’ve seen any character in this kind of environment. And I just want to take a little breather, just a little moment for us all to just pause and appreciate what’s happening here.

Nikki Gamble: 

Pictures are reflective spaces in books.

The obvious last question is whether the wild robot will come out and play again in the future.

Peter Brown: 
I have some ideas. This series is different from other series. In some series, the whole big overarching story is figured out ahead of time. And I’m writing these as episodes. I do have a bigger overarching story, but it gets pretty wild, and I’m not sure if it’s going to work, actually. So, I’m tinkering with some ideas.

Nikki Gamble: 

And will you be working on picture books in between? Is that something that you can do, move from picture book to novel and be working on two projects at the same time?

Peter Brown: 

I love just being able to focus on one project at a time. And usually, there’s a good chunk in the middle of a project where I’m just focused on that one particular book.

But at the beginning of the project or at the end of the project, I’m usually transitioning. As one is winding down, I’m gearing up for the next one.

Right now, I’m working on a picture book, actually, a wild robot picture book. I love this world so much, but all the interior illustrations are black and white; I thought it might be nice just to let myself have some fun with full-colour, richly illustrated scenes.

It’ll be a lot like a retelling of the first book, but we’ll get a different glimpse into Roz’s life and some of the other characters. I wanted to show Roz in this wild environment, slowly adapting and changing with the seasons and all the migrating animals.

And then after that. Who knows?

Nikki Gamble

Thank you so much for joining me this afternoon in the reading corner. It’s been great to talk to you, Peter.

Peter Brown: 

This has been fun. Thank you.