Review of the Day: Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin
When I whip out the old we’re-living-in-a-golden-age-of-picture-book-creation argument with colleagues and friends, they humor what I’m sure they consider to be my hyperbole. Suuuuuure we are, Betsy. Not prone to exaggeration or anything, are you? But honestly, I think I could make a case for it. Look at the picture books of the past. They were beautiful, intricately crafted, and many of them are memorable and pertinent to child readers today. What other art form for kids can say as much? You don’t exactly have five-year-olds mooning over Kukla, Fran and Ollie these days, right (sorry, mom)? But hand them Goodnight Moon and all is well. Now look at picture books today. We’re living in a visual learner’s world. The combination of relaxed picture books standards (example: comics and meta storytelling are a-okay!), publishers willing to try something new and weird, and a world where technology and visual learning plays a heavy hand in our day-to-day lives yields creative attempts hitherto unknown or impossible to author/illustrators as recently as ten years ago. And when I try to think of a picture that combines these elements (meta storytelling / new and weird / technology permeating everything we do) no book typifies all of this better or with as much panache as Robo-Sauce. Because if I leave you understanding one thing today it is this: This may well contain the craziest picture book construction from a major publisher I have EVER seen. No. Seriously. This is insane. Don’t say I didn’t warn you either.
We all know that kid who thinks pretending to be a robot is the most fun you can have. When the hero of this story tries it though he just ends up annoying his family. That’s when the narrator starts talking to him directly. What if there was a recipe for turning yourself into a REAL robot? Would you make it? Would you take it? You BET you would! But once the boy starts destroying things in true mechanical fashion (I bet you were unaware that robots were capable of creating tornadoes, weren’t you?), it’s pretty lonely. The narrator attempts to impart a bit of a lesson here about how to appreciate your family/dog/life but when it hands over the antidote the robot destroys it on sight. Why? Because it’s just created a Robo-Sauce Launcher with which to turn its family, its dog, the entire world, and even the very book you are reading into robots! How do you turn a normal picture book into a robot? Behold the pull out cover that wraps around the book. Once you put it on and open the other cover, the text and images inside are entirely robotized. Robo-Domination is near. It may, however, involve some pretty keen cardboard box suits.
So you’re probably wondering what I meant when I said that the book has a cover that turns into a robot book. Honestly, I tried to figure out how I would verbally explain this. In the end I decided to do something I’d never done before. For the first time ever, I’m including a video as part of my review. Behold the explanation of the book’s one-of-a-kind feature:
These days the idea that a narrator would speak directly to the characters in a book is par for the course. Breaking down the fourth wall has grown, how do you say, passé. We almost expect all our books to be interactive in some way. If Press Here made the idea of treating a book like an app palatable then it stands to reason that competing books would have to up the ante, as it were. In fact, I guess if I’m going to be perfectly honest here, I think I’ve kind of been waiting for Robo-Sauce for a long time. Intrusive narrators, characters you have to yell at, books you shake, they’re commonplace. Into this jaded publishing scene stepped Rubin and Salmieri. They’re New York Times bestsellers in their own right ( Dragons Love Tacos) so they’re not exactly newbies to the field. They’ve proven their selling power. But by what witchcraft they convinced Penguin to include a shiny pull out cover and to print a fifth of the book upside down, I know not. All I can be certain of is that this is a book of the moment. It is indicative of something far greater than itself. Either it will spark a new trend in picture books as a whole or it will be remembered as an interesting novelty piece that typified a changing era.
Let’s look at the book itself then. In terms of the text, I’m a fan. The narrator’s intrusive voice allows the reader to take on the role of adult scold. Kids love it when you yell at a book’s characters for being too silly in some way and this story allows you to do precisely that. Admittedly, I do wish that Rubin had pushed the narrator-trying-to-teach-a-lesson aspect a little farther. If the lesson it was trying to impart was a bit clearer than just the standard “love your family” shtick then it could have had more of a punch. Imagine if, instead, the book was trying to teach the boy about rejecting technology or something like that. Any picture book that could wink slyly at the current crop of drop-the-iPhone-pick-up-a-book titles currently en vogue would be doing the world a service. I’m not saying I disagree with their message. They’re just all rather samey samey and it would be nice to see someone poke a little fun at them (while still, by the end, reinforcing the same message).
As for Salmieri’s art, the limited color palette is very interesting. You’ve your Day-Glo orange, black, white, brown, and pale pink (didn’t see that one coming). Other colors make the occasional cameo but the bulk of the book is pretty limited. It allows the orange to shine (or, in the case of the robot cover, the limited palette allows for something particularly shiny). And check out that subtle breaking down of visual stereotypes! Black dad and white mom. A sister that enjoys playing with trucks. I am ON BOARD with all this.
I won’t be the last parent/librarian/squishy human to hold this book in my hands and wonder what the heck to do with it. What I do know is that it’s a lot of fun. Totally original. And it has a bunch of robots in it causing massive amounts of destruction. All told, I’d say that’s a win. So domo arigato, Misters Rubin and Salmieri. Domo arigato a whole bunch.
On shelves October 20th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Robot SMASH! by Stephen W. Martin
- Here Comes Destructosaurus by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Jeremy Tankard
- Oh No! How My Science Project Destroyed the World by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Dan Santat
Misc: Still need some help figuring out the cover? Check out the book’s website here.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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