Ben Hatke, author of the popular Zita the Spacegirl series, brings readers a junkyard tale of friendship with his new book, Little Robot. A little girl, armed with a tool belt, gumption and lots of independence, discovers a lost blue robot. After she fixes him up, the two explore cats, flowers and frogs—until the factory where the robot belongs sends a bigger, scarier robot to retrieve him.
We contacted Hatke to find out more about robots, new friendships and his most important audience—his own kids.
Considering the popularity of your Zita the Spacegirl series, it’s no surprise that this new story has some major E.T. and Lilo & Stitch vibes, and yet the lost creature here is a robot. How is a robot like an alien?
I think robots are, in some stories, almost an anti-alien. Robots, in stories, work really well as being "us." The robot in this story is activated for the first time and is very much like a child.
Where did this little robot character come from?
About four years ago I drew a short, silent, five panel comic about a little robot. It was a very simple gag, that first comic but before long, and almost without thinking, I found myself drawing another Little Robot comic. And then another . . .
I made 30 Little Robot comics in all, and through those comics the robot's personality developed. Gradually the little trashcan shaped robot started suggesting that there was a larger story to tell.
Were there any Little Robot moments that you really, really wish had made it into this story?
Not really. There are things that happened in the comic strips that I thought were fun, like marching, dancing vegetables, but those things didn't fit the new world that the robot was inhabiting. As far as the main story goes all the best bits from my sketchbooks made it into the final piece.
You’ve described this book as your “little love letter to summer and friendship and robots and makers.” What about this story sums up summer for you?
I think the setting and the sense of idleness. And being near a river. I've spent a lot of summers near a river. If there was a soundtrack to this comic it would just be the sound of cicadas.
What are some of the most important lessons about first friendship that the little girl and the robot learn in this story?
They have to learn to navigate their disagreements. They have to learn to figure out what friendship even means and how to balance the difference between responsibility and possessiveness.
Why do you believe it was necessary for this story to be wordless?
It's not really wordless, it just has very sparse dialogue. I tried to do a story that had words but that could be read without words. In this way I had very beginning readers in mind.
How do your own kids influence your stories? What do you think they would do if they found a lost robot?
I have started to refer to my kids as the Quality Control Department. They really do check up on my work, probably daily, and they have gotten good at giving me honest opinions about the stories I' working on. When they are confused about part of a story I know I have to reexamine it.
And if the girls found a robot? Wow. I hardly know how to answer that one . . .
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part is the good days, when the typing part and the sketching part are working perfectly in tandem and I'm listening to just the right music and the ideas are flowing. I have come to really love seeing the structure of a story take shape.
What’s next for you? Will we see these characters again?
The next book is a picture book called Nobody Likes a Goblin and it was probably the most fun I've had drawing a book. It's my little attempt to examine and flip over some of the tropes of classic fantasy. After that is a graphic novel called Mighty Jack which is about a very dangerous garden. I don't know when we'll next see the characters from Little Robot, but the girl from that story has a very small blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in Mighty Jack.