Round Robin: Oprah recommends Robot Dreams

I woke up yesterday morning and saw this post on the Newsarama blog, about Oprah Winfrey including Sarah Varon’s Robot Dreams in her recommended reading list for six-to-nine-year-olds, and I immediately started wondering what the other bloggers on this site thought of that. So I asked. The result was a wide-ranging conversation about what age group Robot Dreams is best suited for, whether you can ever have a truly all-ages title, and how kids find books in libraries. Enjoy!

Robin Brenner: I read Robot Dreams last year when considering it for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list — and you’ll note that it did make it on to that list, and was a favorite of many members of the committee. Part of my debate about the book was whether it skewed too young, and in the end I felt it was definitely sophisticated enough to appeal to a range of teens, even if it was also officially appropriate for kids.

Part of my hesitation with promoting it for kids, though, is simply that no one ever really makes the distinction between for kids and all ages (if such a mythical designation as all ages really exists as much as publishers want it to.) Robot Dreams certainly has nothing objectionable in it for kids to read about, and it has a lot of themes that will resonate with kids, from making new friends to feeling regret to making bad decisions. There’s also the art style, which is charming and very appealing, which leads one to guess that it is aimed at kids. However, none of that makes it the best choice for kids age 6-9.

Are there kids who will love it? I’m sure there are. Is it a graphic novel that is aimed at kids? Well, that depends on how you define kids. I sometimes think people think of kids as this great, homogenous group of little people under the age of 12. What people forget is that kids have such a wide range of interests and reading levels that a good kids book needs to be defined more narrowly. How old is this kid? Six or nine? What kinds of stories do they like so far? Are they nonfiction readers (as anyone can testify, there are boys who take out nothing but books about trucks for years and years)? What makes reading fun for them? Or have they never liked reading very much?

Over time I’ve come to realize that perhaps we librarians think about age ranges and appeal more than your man on the street. Perhaps because all day, every day, we observe what people read, what catches their attention, and what they put down after a minute because it didn’t grab them. I think that there quite a few graphic novels that appeal solidly to kids that might have broader appeal and show off the format just as well, but again, it depends on what Oprah and everyone else is thinking of when they say kids. For the youngest, Owly is brilliant. For a bit older, there’s Scott Morse’s Magic Pickle, Kean Soo’s Jellaby, and Jennifer Holm’s Babymouse. For a bit older than that, there’s Jeff Smith’s Bone, Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet or the anthology Flight Explorer, and now Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale. And yes, Robot Dreams I think will appeal to older kids, but it wouldn’t be my first choice in a field of increasingly fantastic titles for kids.

Honestly, I’m curious what the Children’s librarians have to say. Where do you guys keep Robot Dreams? And everyone else — who have you seen reading Robot Dreams? Who gravitates toward it?

OK, that’s my opening salvo. :)

Eva Volin: Sigh. It’s hard to follow Robin in a discussion like this. I always end up saying something like, “It’s got a nice beat and I can dance to it.” Hee!

OK, I have Robot Dreams in my children’s collection. Four copies were added (two at the Main and one at each of the branches) back on February 2nd. Since February, those four copies have cumulatively circulated twenty-eight times. Clearly, the book is doing very well. (Each copy averaging seven circs in six months? Not bad!) Keep in mind, though, that my children’s department serves up through 8th grade. Many children’s departments only serve through fifth grade, and this makes a difference.

Robot Dreams is a beautiful book and can be read on many different levels. I do think a six-year-old can read Robot Dreams and come away satisfied. I think a 16-year-old will be more satisfied. I think a 36-year-old will be even more satisfied. This makes it a true all-ages title. So, no, I don’t think it’s the perfect kids book. But I do think it’s a book kids will enjoy. And if buying it for my children’s department was the only way to get it into the collection, so be it. It’ll work fine there. And I hope parents will take the time to read it along with their kids.

I have to agree with Robin that librarians do think about age ranges more carefully than the average reader or reviewer. But even we can get lost in all the new material that is coming out for kids, so the more help we can get, the better. It’s maddening to me when a book that is aimed at elementary school-level readers is labeled as “all-ages.” If something is for all ages, it should be as appropriately placed in an adult collection as it would be in a children’s collection. Robot Dreams fits this requirement.

Alternatively, can 25-year-olds read Kat and Mouse? Sure. Is it a good book? Yep. Does it belong in an adult collection? Probably not. It would have been much more helpful to have this book be rated as 8+, or Ultra Maniac as 10+, or Johnny Boo as 6+, which would tell me as a librarian and a consumer (I buy plenty of books for my nieces) who the intended audience is for the book. You’d think this wouldn’t matter so much, but it does. There are plenty of people out there who still think that all comics are for kids, that any digest-sized book is manga, and that both of these things equals not-really-reading. The more help publishers and reviewers can give, the better chance we have of getting comics and graphic novels into the hands of the right readers. But I digress…

I think it’s great that Oprah chose a graphic novel to include on her list, as it will bring more attention to a storytelling format that a lot of her readers may be unfamiliar with. I think Robot Dreams is a fine choice. It’s a beautifully written book, the illustrations are accessible to non-comics readers, and the fact that it’s wordless may make it easier for non-comics readers to get used to reading sequential art (although I’ve heard arguments that wordless books are actually harder to read). I also find it interesting that they’ve chosen a book from one of the newer houses. First Second doesn’t have a huge catalog yet, but what they do have is very good. Their books are also more likely to be found in bookstores, rather than traditional comic book shops, making them easier to find by the typical Oprah Magazine reader. Hmm. Something to think about.

Snow Wildsmith: Wow, now I have to follow Robin AND Eva and find something to say other than “Yeah, me too!” :-)

I’ve always felt that RD is best understood by ages 10+, since it’s so much about finding and losing your first love, something that I don’t think younger kids will get. That doesn’t mean that they won’t like it, just that I think it won’t really speak to them beyond the cute pictures of the dog and his friend. But I’ve had discussions with other people who said that they felt that Robot Dreams was more of a kids’ title. I don’t know if that is because of it being a wordless comic or not. (I do know that several of them felt the same way about Shaun Tan’s The Arrival—that it was for 5th grade and under, not for teens, something I vehemently disagreed with.)

I will say that RD circulates pretty well in my branch and my system has it cataloged as “YA.” My branch has the teen graphic novels broken into categories: manga, DC, Marvel, and other. RD is, obviously, in the other category, a group that does not circulate to the level that the manga and the Marvel books do, but RD is by far one of the best circulating titles in the other category, better even than other First Second titles like Life Sucks and the Buffy titles.

What I like about Oprah choosing this book is that I feel like it’s one that can be a bridge between parents and teens and kids. Adults can read this book, their kids can read this book, and then they can discuss it, can have a shared moment around the same work, without that book being a “kiddie” book. I like things that build that bridge, that bring parents together with their kids, especially when it has the possibility of bringing them together with their teens, which can be hard to do.

My 2 cents…

Kate Dacey: I think the point that Robin, Eva, and Snow raise about the book’s wistful tone is an important one. For younger readers, the book’s themes of loss, rediscovery, and reconciliation are simply beyond their experience. For tweens, however, I think Robot Dreams is an excellent choice, as it dramatizes just how fragile close friendships can be—a hard lesson that many of them are learning as they enter their middle school years.

Oprah’s endorsement of Robot Dreams bodes well for an emerging sector of the children’s book market: “kid-lit” comics, by which I mean children’s comics that are packaged like picture books instead of floppies. For parents who equate comics with superheroes, the more durable, elegant presentation of books like Robot Dreams, The Arrival, and Otto’s Orange Day may help overcome innate resistance to stories told in panels and word balloons.

And yes, Robot Dreams does have a good beat—that’s my official contribution to the discussion as a musicologist!

Esther Keller: Like Robin, I read Robot Dreams when considering it for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. And I think Robin and I share similar thoughts on this. While Robot Dreams has a feel and a look that will appeal to a younger crowd, something about it skews older.

BUT when I think about it, the reason it skews older is not because it doesn’t have themes, characters or a feel that will appeal to the 8-11 year old (which is where I would put it… perfect for the younger end of my demographic in the middle school). I think that the reason it might not circulate or be read is because it’s a more literary title. To me the issue is literary vs. popular. What’s popular is the manga and superheroes. Other graphic novels, even Flight Explorer, Jellaby, and others, are the titles that I usually hand to kids and talk up to kids.

When discussing titles on GGNT I often made the distinction between titles we talked up vs. the popular ones. Certain books fly off the shelf. There’s something about the cover or description of the book that’s eye catching. Sometimes that eye-catching title is quality (or literary) and sometimes it’s just a good fun read. Then there are titles that just don’t go out, but if someone takes the time to describe it and make it sound as exciting as it is, then the kids take it out. (Especially if you’ve created a trust between you and them.)

Back to Brigid’s question: Yes, I think it was an excellent choice to highlight. I could have thought of other titles too, but Robot Dreams has something magical about it. Something that all ages (or a large span of ages) can identify with. The most off putting part about it might be the wordless story. My nephew, age 12, is a voracious reader, and cannot handle wordless stories. He wants the words!

Snow Wildsmith: I think Esther brings up a great point about the different types of popularity. This is something we struggle with on the Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list. Is it popular because it flies off the shelf without us mentioning it (Twilight, Eragon, etc.) or is it popular if it flies off the shelf AFTER we mention it (The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp is that one for me lately) or is popularity a combo of the two and/or something in the middle?

Esther Keller: As a kid/teen I was a regular library user, and I asked the librarian to help me find a book, but I don’t recall asking her for recommendations. I was a browser. But you know, I missed lots of good books….

I don’t let my students just browse. Ok, I do. If they just want to browse, they can. But if a teacher schedules a class for ‘checkout,’ The first 15 minutes it to booktalk 5-6 titles. Then they can browse. Sometimes I choose popular (or what was once popular but died down.) I choose good books with bad covers. I booktalk what will appeal, but might not catch the eye. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not. I admit, I forgot to order Robot Dreams. *hangs head in shame* and so it’s not in my collection yet. It will be. But I’m pretty certain this is a title that I’ll have to booktalk, because the kids gravitate to the manga and the superheroes. They don’t bother with The Arrival or Laika. They’re in middle school! Sometimes they have to be shown or guided.

Eva Volin: I think it’s really interesting that so many of us would put Robot Dreams in a middle school collection. Not that I think middle schoolers won’t enjoy the book. I know they do. But I do think that having life experience to bring to the book makes it a much richer read. When I was doing my read-a-thons before the GGNFT meetings, I had several high school boys pick up RD to read, then ask me if I had more books like it. I’ve also given it to adult friends who thought it was brilliant. I think it’s a book that LOOKS young more than it actually is young, if that makes any sense.

As a public librarian, I depend on the kids to browse. There’s no way I can interact with them all the way a school librarian can, and at times I’m jealous of Esther (I love you, too!) and her ability to command the students’ attention for at least a portion of each visit. It would make it much easier to fine tune reading lists for each visitor’s wants and needs if I could. On the other hand, I have the luxury of being able to purchase a much wider variety of material than could ever go into a school library, and collection development is one of my favorite parts of the job. So the pros and cons even themselves out.

Esther Keller: There are pros and cons to being a public vs. school librarian. Each has its bonus! I loved my years at BPL… wouldn’t trade them in for anything, but I also love my years at Marine Park and wouldn’t trade those in either.

But I do miss the budget :) She who has only $7,600 to spend for 1,100 students.

Eva Volin: Heh. That’s more than our teen librarian has, which is how Robot Dreams ended up in our Children’s collection!

4 Responses to “Round Robin: Oprah recommends Robot Dreams”

  1. [...] Brigid Alverson and her fellow contributors at Good Comics for Kids discuss Robot Dreams making Oprah’s Reading List for [...]

  2. I picked up Robot Dreams in the children’s section of my local library, and the next day I found out about its selection by Oprah. Bearing a strong dislike for almost everything she touches, I almost didn’t read it. But I decided to give it a try.
    My son (7 yrs) and I read it together. We both liked it. I think I appreciated it more because of life experience, but my son got a lot out of it. We talked about the book afterwards. I don’t think he’s accustomed to reading anything quite as morally complex as this book, but he still showed a good understanding of the material.

  3. Wow, everybody here is dead-on correct! I think we’ve spent so much time convincing the world that comics are also for kids that now we’re not sure what to do with all the vaguely “kid-appropriate” material that’s out there. Defining age group targets is essential and I wish it happened more in the comics industry. Many comics that appear kid-appropriate are actually more suited to teens or adults, either because of inappropriate themes or just because they involve things kids don’t really care about or understand. The cognitive leaps that kids make every year or two have to be considered by writers, artists, and publishers when deciding whom their comics should target.

    One question this raises in my mind relates to the dreaded “all-ages” distinction. I don’t dispute that some comics are truly meant for all ages. But why is it that material targeted to younger readers is always the first to carry the all-ages label (or be criticized if it doesn’t)? Why isn’t Batman considered all-ages (or criticized for not being all-ages)? Why are adult comics allowed to just be for adults but kids comics have to be for everyone?

  4. [...] good folks at Good Comics for Kids also discuss Robot Dreams in a round [...]