The wordless graphic novel for children. Adults, quite frankly, haven't a clue how to deal with them. But for those kids intimidated by words, new to the English language, or just fond of visual storytelling, these new forms of literature are nothing less than a godsend. From the picture book-sized, The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard to Andy Runton's remarkably popular, Owly series, wordless has never been hotter amongst the young `uns. More to the point, graphic novel imprint First Second has never been intimidated by new formats. Its mighty peculiar A.L.I.E.E.E.N., for example, was essentially wordless (not to say wuh-eird weird weird). Though First Second may tend to look to other nations for their stories, they're certainly not afraid of a little homegrown talent on the side. Enter Sara Varon. Best known at the moment for the wordless picture book Chicken And Cat, this Brooklyn resident has produced a full-blown novel of remarkable sweetness. Linear and lovely, broken up with daydreams and fantasies, "Robot Dreams" is a small "simple" story of friendship and letting go. Relationships have never pared down so perfectly.
A dog purchases a robot kit so that he might have a friend to hang out with. The robot, a mellow type, enjoys hanging out with the dog, eating popcorn, watching movies, and going to the library. A trip to the beach, however, turns out to be a less than stellar idea when the robot goes swimming only to rust up and find that it can no longer move. The dog goes home for the night, intending to take the robot along later. Unfortunately, the beach is closed the next day and the poor robot is stuck on the sand, dreaming of things both good and bad. As the months go by, both robot and dog have their own small adventures, real and unreal. By the end, however, they each find new and separate companions. The last image in the book is of the robot seeing the dog with another robot, and understanding that this is a case when you've just got to let the person you love go.
You get certain ideas about a book when you look at it. Reading about the concept and glancing at the cover, I had the vague idea that the title would be a series of small adventures shared by the dog and the robot. So when the robot seized up 18 pages into the narrative and was abandoned by his companion (with more than 150 pages to go) I admit that I was a little shocked. Out the window go all my assumptions about the story. Though it's difficult to call it "writing" without having any words to direct you to, Varon's grasp of what makes a good narrative serves her very well here. It doesn't hurt matters any that I also love Varon's style. She's one of those deceptively simple artists. You feel a real and solid attachment to the creatures she's created, no matter how odd they may seem. There's also a real emotional arc to the tale. For example the robot at one point dreams of the betrayal it would feel if the dog found a new robot to hang out with (as it does later in the story). The dog, for its part, finds a variety of different friends during its travels. Birds. Anteaters. A snowman that comes to such a subtle end that it makes Raymond Briggs look like a murderer in comparison.
Varon spots her book with little shout-outs to her various interests and inspirations. Canny readers will notice that near the end the robot and its raccoon friend are reading books like The Rabbi's Cat, by Joann Sfar. I was intrigued by this mention of a fellow graphic novelist. Yet as my husband was quick to point out, Varon is rather similar to Sfar in that her stories are about extraordinary creatures doing relatively mundane things. Of course, my husband also says that this book is akin to The Giving Tree, had the tree found someone new to love it instead of that nasty boy. I couldn't disagree more, but I thought I'd mention it here, just in case you want to see for yourself whether or not it's true.
By and large, "Robot Dreams" is that rare combination of the sweet and the emotionally resonant. To me, this is basically a story about friendship, love, and how to move on when your heart's been broken. It just happens to also be wrapped up in a very innocent tale of a dog and his robot. Undoubtedly this will fly right under the radar of a lot of people who will miss the serious thread lurking beneath the pretty packaging. It's no easy task to produce a narrative sequence without a single spoken word. Harder still to drill home a heart's journey. Varon, then, is one to watch out for. A weirdly magnificent tale.