By Nawal Qarooni
A Rover’s Story, Jasmine Warga’s newest novel, is about a Mars rover named Resilience (Res). It follows Res from his creation in the NASA lab to his dangerous mission to Mars. The book explores not only the perils of space exploration, but also big human questions like: what does it mean to leave home; what does it mean to be a friend; and what does it mean to be scared, but to do something brave anyway?
I had the privilege to sit down with Jasmine to talk about writing process, lessons for children, and the wide gamut of human emotion.
How did this lovely little rover story come to be? What sparked the idea?
In July of 2020 my youngest daughter asked if we could watch the rover launch—she’s super into space—and I did the mom calculus where I told myself that was educational screen time. I thought I would turn it on and leave to get some work done, but I felt myself magnetized to the screen. I was so excited to hear the NASA scientists talking about their work on the rover; it reminded me of what humans are capable of, and how much is possible through human creativity and exploration. Even when our whole world felt scary and uncertain, we were finding ways to explore and understand the universe. I was thinking about all of those things, and then the rocket launched, and the rover was headed to space. My oldest daughter started clapping, but my youngest daughter looked concerned. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “Mama, do you think the robot is scared?”—and I thought: what a fantastic, human question, and what a wonderful story idea.
Can the rover feel? What emotions would it feel? It felt so different from the things that I had written about before, but that also excited me. The more I learned about the rovers, the more I knew this was the next book that I wanted to write.
As you mentioned above, this book seems on the surface quite different from your other books, Other Words for Home and The Shape of Thunder, which grapple with identity and belonging. But at the same time, this story feels somehow similar.
Externally the books clearly feel different. Other Words for Home is about a young Syrian girl and in the Rover Story, the protagonist is a robot. But at the core, both books are asking about identity and home, and what it means to leave home. What does it mean to do something that feels scary? When I was a young person, I wondered a lot about identity and home and belonging. I wondered a lot about what it meant to be brave because I felt scared and anxious all the time. It was wonderful writing experience to wonder about these themes but through a different lens.
What I love is that throughout my reading, though Res is a robot, he seemed to give me permission to feel. Did you mean for this book to become a pathway for kids to talk about their emotions?
My rover worries a lot about having the wrong feelings. He worries about having feelings in the first place, wondering if it makes him a bad robot. And that stems from me worrying about the very same things. In particular, I was thinking a lot about the onslaught of emotions in 2020—we were a country that was grieving. Many of us were experiencing new emotions like loneliness and isolation. And the rover, Resilience, is grappling with all of those same emotions.
In writing my first non-human protagonist, the book is at its core talking about what it means to be human. That’s what all stories essentially are about. Robots or anthropomorphized narrators are ways to talk about the human condition. What does it mean to be a person with feelings, and how do we navigate a wide range of human experiences.
My hope is it will give kids a blueprint to be able to talk and label their own emotions in a time when a lot of kids might be feeling really overwhelmed by their feelings and not have the language to express them.
Tell me a little about your writing structure and process here; it’s so fun and readily digestible. I can’t wait to read this aloud in classrooms. Speak a little about the blurred genre lines here too, about how nonfiction/fiction compartments don’t necessarily serve us.
We are taught that nonfiction teaches us facts and fiction is make believe, but this book sits at the intersection of actual facts AND learning through imagination. We learn to grow our curiosity, wonder and empathy. It has a lot of really cool space facts but it also stretches our minds to really wonder about emotional interiority and big human questions.
The bulk of the book is narrated by the rover, called Resilience, affectionately called Res, and I wanted his voice to be sparse and almost poetic—where he tells the story in short chapters. Interspersed are letters from a young girl named Sophia, and she has a connection with Res—that you learn about as you move through the book. Her voice is a little messier, but I love playing with structure to create voice. This idea of having letters, which are more conversational, juxtaposed with shorter chapters narrated by Res. My hope is that it’ll also encourage kids to use their imaginations to try out different styles of writing—because with different styles and structures, characters can express themselves in different ways.
It bothers me that BIPOC writers are often solely asked about issues of race and diversity, when we can write about anything and everything, not solely about the color of our skin. What do you think?
Finding your voice and your story starts with asking what big questions you have about the world. From there, you’ll unearth a lot of story ideas. For me, when I was a kid, those things that I wondered about were identity and home and belonging. I know that’s because I’m the daughter of an immigrant whose parents were refugees. So of course I asked, what does it mean to leave home? What does it mean to build a home? What does it mean to feel like an outsider? All of my stories return to those themes. I was excited to write a book that on its face isn’t as obviously engaged with race and ethnicity. Though it shows up, and I think it’s clear when you read the book that I have the background that I do, the book is ALSO a fun space adventure—and it is the kind of book I would’ve loved to pull off the shelves in 4th or 5th grades. It would have fed my soul as a child. I want to show kids that all kinds of writers can write all kinds of stories.
Jasmine is currently on tour for A Rover’s Story:
Jasmine Warga is the New York Times-bestselling author of middle grade novels Other Words For Home and The Shape of Thunder. Other Words For Home earned multiple awards, including a John Newbery Honor, a Walter Honor for Young Readers, and a Charlotte Huck Honor. The Shape of Thunder was a School Library Journal and Bank Street best book of the year, a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Children’s and YA Book Award, and has been named to several state award reading lists. She is also the author of young adult books, My Heart and Other Black Holes and Here We Are Now, which have been translated into over twenty different languages. Her next novel, A Rover’s Story, will be out on October 4, 2022, and has already earned three starred reviews. Jasmine currently teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Cincinnati, she now lives in the Chicago-area with her family in a house filled with books.
Nawal Qarooni is an educator and writer who works in learning spaces to support a holistic model of literacy instruction. She and her team of coaches at NQC Literacy work with teachers and school leaders to grow a love of reading and composition in ways that exalt the whole child, their cultural capital and their intrinsic curiosities. She is the proud daughter of immigrants, and mothering her four young kids shapes her understanding of teaching and learning. She is a former international newspaper reporter and currently a contributing writer for We Need Diverse Books. Nawal holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan; a master’s degree in newspaper, magazine, and online journalism from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School; and a master’s degree from Brooklyn College via the NYC Teaching Fellows program. In her daily literacy coaching and school-based support, Nawal draws on her years as a middle grades classroom teacher and professional writer, as well as her love of photography and connection to nature. Her recent projects include researching and designing a family literacy program for Chicago Public Schools and authoring a forthcoming book on caregiver literacy. You can find her reading aloud to her kids, running in Liberty State Park, or on Twitter @NQCLiteracy. Learn more about her work at NQCLiteracy.com.