I grew up in a small rural town in Iowa. Most of my friends and classmates were farm kids. Outdoor kids. I was not. I was content inside my house, building Legos, playing with action figures, and reading comics and watching movies. As I grew up, my love of the outdoors grew and instilling a love for the outdoors in my children through riding bikes, camping, snowshoeing, you name it, has become important to me. This is why I was drawn to THE WILD ROBOT. It felt as if it was written for me specifically. A blending of my childhood self with my adulthood self. My expectations were high.
When Rozzum Unit 7134 first boots up, she is packed tightly in a crate, washed ashore on a remote island. It doesn’t take her survival instincts, or programming, long to kick in as she notices broken crates and busted robot parts strewn about the beach. She is the lone robot survivor of a cargo ship accident and is stranded on an exotic island with no recollection of who or what she is or how she came to be. In order to survive so that she can function properly, Roz must learn how to be “wild” from the animal inhabitants of the island.
I enjoyed THE WILD ROBOT, despite it not quite living up to my expectations. With 288 pages divided into 80 chapters (that’s roughly 3 pages per chapter), I was expecting a quick read. It was not a quick read however. I don’t know if it was the plot, or if the short chapters worked against the pacing, but the story dragged quite a bit. I enjoyed the descriptive opening chapters, as Roz was problem-solving her way around surviving the island, and I enjoyed the exciting closing chapters, as the Reco bots were closing in on capturing Roz. The middle of the story, where Roz mothers a small gosling, gave the story some heart, but this is where the pacing of the plot became drawn out and repetitive.
I have read reviews of THE WILD ROBOT that laud the deep questions Brown asks of his young readers. I had a difficult time pinpointing a coherent message though. The opening chapters stand out as Roz attempts and fails multiple times to understand her surroundings and I began to see this nature vs. machine theme take shape. But it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, Roz discovers that her key to surviving the island is in befriending the animals that live there. The animals however, don’t behave like animals. They are very civilized and talk like goofy Disney characters. In order to survive, Roz wants to become “wild” like the animals but the animals she encounters are far from “wild.”
There are some tender moments where Roz learns to take care of a gosling and I could see a message coming through about acceptance and family, but then the final act of the book kicks into gear and violence ensues. The ending is rather unsettling and I’m not sure what Brown was going for. Is he saying it is ok to destroy someone (or something) in order to protect those we love? Pretty heavy for a children’s novel! The lack of a coherent message may result in a somewhat choppy story, but that may only bother adult readers. Kids may ask deep questions around each of these themes Brown touches on and maybe that was his point.
In the end, I did enjoy THE WILD ROBOT. I love Brown's sense of humor and I liked the black and white illustrations of Roz, looking out of place on the island. The sci-fi/adventure/survival blend is right up my alley and I can really see kids digging this book. Readers should check out Brown's blog where he details the process of creating this book and getting it published. Quite the inspiring labor of love.