In Sara Varon’s “Robot Dreams,” a complicated tale of friendship is told through a very simple structure — dog makes robot, dog loses robot. There’s more than that, of course — dog grapples with robot being missing, robot grapples with feelings of abandonment, dog attempts to assuage his own guilt by seeking out new friends, robot begins to become clinically depressed while trapped under piles of snow.
But the most important part of Varon’s story is that the dog and the robot eventually move on. That’s giving nothing away — it’s the getting there that keeps your attention and Varon’s wordless graphic tale with its kid-friendly edge manages to evoke more emotional depth and complication than so many others who utilize words and human characters.
In Varon’s hands, silence really is golden.
“It’s easier for me, since I am not great with words,” she said. “Also, my stories are very simple, so they can be told easily with just pictures and pantomime. Usually I just make a list of characters or situations, and I figure out how to link them. Then I write them out as short sentences, break them up into separate pages, and draw thumbnails.”
Varon originally conceived of her graphic novel as an eight-page story ending with the dog abandoning the broken robot and she pulled from personal experience to craft that beginning.
“It might sound a little silly, especially if you’re not a fan of dogs, but I made the comic after putting my dog to sleep,” said Varon. “Even though she was old and sick, I felt like I was abandoning her after she had been such a good and loyal pal, so, I guess I was kind of like the dog, and she was like the robot. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time of making the story, in retrospect I think I was pulling from that experience.”
Varon ended up extending the story to a 12-month arc tracing the separated friends through changing seasons, which serve as mood-setting backdrops to a variety of relationships, some good ones and some not so much.
“There was one scene in the winter, where the dog is hanging out with the anteaters, and that made me think of being a little kid,” Varon said, “when you’re in a new place and you really want to be friends with people and you make an effort but they’re just mean.”
There are other segments where certain animals represent specific types of people — for instance, a group of rabbits that salvage parts from the robot remind Varon of that oblivious sort of person who is only focused on their own needs. Varon pays great attention to the feelings of others — needs, desires, all kinds of disappointment — as she crafts the emotional journeys of the dog and the robot, as well as the motivations of the other animals they encounter.
“In the spring, there’s a scene where the birds come and hang out with the robot,” said Varon, “and for a little while he has a bird family to keep him company. That reminded me of how someone might do something really small, and maybe they don’t even notice it, but it means a lot, like it meant a lot to the robot to have companionship while he was stranded on the beach.”
Varon prefers to work with animal characters. Growing up, she was a big fan of anthropomorphic master Richard Scarry, as well as Williams Steig and Russell Hoban’s Frances books. She was loved watching Jay Ward cartoons like Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog. Varon says that all these influences have swirled around her head for years and really manifest themselves in her own work.
“I think it’s kind of instinctive for me to use animal characters,” she said. “The thing I like about them is that they are not boys or girls and have no ethnic or age identity, so I think that makes them more universal.”
In her graphic novel work, Varon is not specifically aiming for kids, but as a children’s book writer and illustrator, there is obviously that quality in her work that appeals to kids. Varon says that the only different between the picture books and the graphic novels are their lengths, but she also hopes that, as one segment of her readership, kids are not only entertained, but also informed by “Robot Dreams.”.
“I hope that kids will relate to the ups and downs of friendship,” said Varon. “Kids can be so mean to each other, and when you’re small everything seems so significant, so I hope it will help them realize that people come and go, and everything moves forward.”