What if a robot made its way to an uninhabited island and was activated by animals? That’s the question at the core of Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot. In answering this question, Brown makes us question what it means to feel, to be human, and to have agency — all in a book written for 8–12-year old kids.
I bought the book two years ago for my then fourth-grade daughter. She loves robots and was keen on becoming a robotics engineer. We buy a lot of books in our family. My daughter was excited about the book, but she got distracted by Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.
The book sat unopened on her shelf for two years until she needed to grab a book to read at school.
The Wild Robot was small and light, and she grabbed it. She was now a precocious sixth-grader, reading at college level. I doubted she would still like the book.
She loved it.
For a week she told me all about it. With every conversation, I grew more anxious to read The Wild Robot for myself. My daughter was spreading the gospel of The Wild Robot. Her teachers were taking pictures of it to buy. We bought it for birthday presents for her friends.
Finally, I read it.
I have never read a book like it before.
It’s a short read. I read the whole thing in a few hours.
Roz is a robot in a crate, on a container ship. Her, and several other robots, are swept overboard in a storm. All of the other robots are destroyed. Through chance, Roz washes ashore on an unnamed island where she is accidentally activated by some curious otters.
The click of Roz’s on button sets in motion a tale that is part robot Call of the Wild, part The Ugly Duckling, and part Terminator.
Brown’s prose is sparse and direct. Any fourth-grader would easily be able to grasp the plot. But, under the surface, Brown does something very subversive. In our world filled with algorithms, Siri, and Alexa, he gets the reader to question what it means to make choices. He creates a not-so-distant future, or parallel universe, where robots are everywhere and do everything.
The interaction between Roz the Robot and the animals on the island raises fundamental philosophical questions about life, consciousness, friendship, justice, and parenting. Every detail in The Wild Robot matters. Brown’s linguistic minimalism creates a subtle, complex world that I can’t stop thinking about.
The sequel to The Wild Robot was released in March of 2018. It’s called The Wild Robot Escapes. It’s what I’ll be reading this weekend.
The Wild Robot is beautiful, nuanced, and elegant. It reminds me of The Little Prince. It’s wonderfully weird, but earnest in its childlike wonder.
It should be required reading for everyone.
The Wild Robot is that rare book that makes you a better person for having read it. Do yourself a favor and pick it up today. You’ll be happy that you did.