How to Build a Robot

A Q&A with Eve L. Ewing about her first children’s book, Maya and the Robot

Cover of Maya and the RobotAward-winning author Eve L. Ewing’s latest book is an illustrated middle grade novel about a forgotten homemade robot who comes to life just when aspiring fifth-grade scientist Maya needs a friend and a science fair project. Published by Penguin Random House in July 2021, Maya and the Robot is a story about community, adapting to change, and the magic of ingenuity that reminds young readers that they can always turn to their own curiosity when feeling lost.

Eve L. Ewing is an Assistant Professor in the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. She is a qualitative sociologist of education whose scholarship, community work, and classroom teaching are aimed at expanding the ways that urban school stakeholders, other researchers, and the broader public can be equipped to understand, respond to, and ultimately dismantle white supremacy, and to make school systems liberatory institutions rather than oppressive ones.

Her book Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago's South Side was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2018. The book received the Outstanding Ethnography in Education Book Award from the University of Pennsylvania and the O.L. Davis Jr. Outstanding Book Award from the American Association for Teaching and Curriculum.

She also writes in other genres for broad audiences: she is author of the poetry collections Electric Arches and 1919 and had written the Ironheart and Champions series for Marvel Comics.

Professor Eve L. Ewing Zoomed with Crown Family School staff member, Julie Jung to discuss Maya and the Robot.

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Julie: You have this theme going with robots in your literary work. Have you ever built a robot?

headshot of Eve EwingEve: I’ve never! But I love robots. I love science. I started my elementary school teaching career as a science teacher. Well, my middle school teaching career as a science teacher. And one of the other things that inspired Maya and the Robot is that when I was a science teacher I really wanted, I really wished that I had more books that presented great science content in the context of a really good story.

When I was a kid I learned certain science content through engaging literature and I wanted to have more novels and things like Maya in my classroom that would introduce science concepts to kids in a cool way. You know, the whole concept of slide the kale into the smoothie a little bit? And it was hard for me to find good books like that. And so, and I was always looking for them. This is one thing that inspired this book.

There’s also quite a bit of real science in the book. And one of the consultants was Leah Castleberry, MPP 2020, who’s a University of Chicago alum who has worked in machine learning and AI. She read through the book and suggested places to really amp up the science, which was really helpful. I also thought back to a lot of the science that I was interested in when I was Maya’s age and how I could introduce scientific ideas in a cool way. And then I just love robots. I think robots are cool. I’ve never met one myself. Ha! That would be delightful.

Julie: So in addition to talking with Leah, what other sorts of research and inspiration did you draw from to write the book?

Eve: I did a lot of research about different kinds of robots and learned a lot about different kinds of robots in writing this book, so that was really fun. And one of the things that actually inspired the book was my niece. When she was about two or three, she started to be obsessed with robots. And it was so random. You know, kids get these random obsessions. For her it wasn’t dinosaurs. It wasn’t trains. It was robots and it came out of the blue. And any toy, any blocks, she would always stack things up and say, “It’s a robot. It’s a robot.” Actually, when she was really little she would say, “Robock,” which was really adorable. And so when she was about four or five I took her to the Museum of Science and Industry, which at the time had this really great robot exhibit. And there was this robot that was roving the exhibit by itself but it didn’t look like a robot. It looked like an air purifier or an air conditioner or something but it did not look like a cartoon version of a robot. But it talked and its job was to just roll around and tell people different facts about different parts of the exhibit. And my niece was about the same height as this little robot air conditioner … I have this picture of her walking with her hand on this robot and talking to it … and she started translating for other kids like, “He says he wants us to go over there. He says look at this.” And she spent 20 minutes just following this robot around and talking to it. Sometime later we were driving by the museum and she kind of slumped back in her seat in the back of the car and heavily sighed and said, “I just wish I could have a robot to go everywhere with me and be my friend.” And I couldn’t get that image of this little girl and her robot out of my mind. I had known that I wanted to write a book for kids. It was in the 10-year plan or the 15-year plan. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this girl and her robot which soon morphed from being my niece into being this kind of fictional figure of just, you know, a boy and his dog. We have a million stories about a boy and his dog but I had never read a book about a girl and her robot, you know? And so I just couldn’t stop thinking about them, the two of them. And they were so charming and so steadfastly refused to leave my head that I was like, oh gosh. Now I have to write this book.

Also I was born in the ‘80s … I don’t know if you remember the sitcom Small Wonder, which is a really bad sitcom about a family where their daughter is a robot. There’s no CGI or special effects or anything. The show is kind of an Amelia Bedelia joke of a character who always takes things too literally. You know, the classic fish out of water character who always messes up. And so I always knew from the beginning, that’s what I wanted Ralph [the Robot] to be. He’s always trying to be a good friend to Maya and he loves her but he doesn’t totally get the human thing and he’s figuring it out. So that’s where the story came from.

Julie: Let’s talk about the central themes of Maya and the Robot

Eve: Yes, the themes in my book are about managing feelings – particularly grief and gun violence. And then friendship. I would say it’s a book about friendship.

Julie: Where does this book sit in the world of books for middle school kids, and specifically where does it fit in in terms of how Maya deals with grief?

Eve: It’s a middle grade novel, so it’s like second, third, fourth, fifth grade. I’ve been saying 8-12- or 7–12-year-old kids. One of the things that has always been important to me as an educator and as a person who cares about children is that when we think about Mr. Rogers, or Sesame Street, or even just the adults in our lives that love us, that we cherish the moments as children when we are told unconditionally that our feelings are valid and okay and that it’s okay to experience certain things, that it’s not your fault. To have a person who helps you process those things in a way that is accepting and affirming. And so one of the things I was thinking about how to incorporate the issue of gun violence in the book is I was thinking about the ways when people lose their lives, whether that’s through violence, whether that’s through illness, whether that’s through accidents, whatever the circumstance, that there are always so many young people who loved that person and who were touched by that person in the community who may or may not ever have an opportunity to process what happened. I remember when Hadiya Pendleton was killed, I was a sixth, seventh, and eighth grade teacher with an eighth grade home room. I kept in touch with my eighth graders after they graduated and a couple of them went to the same high school with Hadiya and one of them was in the band and had performed with her. I remember one of them saying, you know, “I’m scared that I’m going to die.” And it’s not like this was her best friend or something, you know? She was just a member of this community and it made me think a lot about how I would feel. Of course, you would have that fear. And how in thinking about grieving and trauma, do we do a good enough job of making space for young people who may just be watching from a distance? They may not be in the nuclear family or the closest friend, but they’re still impacted because the ripple effects of these harms are so grand. And then there’s the question as to if we doing enough to listen to and validate the way that young people might be processing those experiences.

So in my book, Maya finds herself in this position where she’s impacted by the death of someone that she has never met. And the way that adults talk to her, their expectations of her, and the way they treat her, are all colored by this loss that all the adults are feeling but none of them have actually discussed with her. In my own childhood, I remember many instances of feeling as if maybe we’re not allowed to ask about certain things or talk about certain things that might be taboo. And as a child, you’re then left to kind of figure it out as best as you can without a lot of guidance. So one of the things I hope that the book does is give space and validation for young people who might have experienced that kind of loss and to give the adults in their lives a tool to open up that space for conversation and say ‘this is an okay thing to talk about.’

Julie: It seems as if there’s a dearth of books around how to deal with community violence and trauma. Was that one of the other reasons that you wrote this?

Eve: Yeah. I think, as a society we’re pretty bad at talking about grief generally. One of the tremendous challenges over the last year and a half is realizing how heavy the weight of grief can be and how we don’t have always really great cultural scripts for addressing it. And furthermore, I think that part of what I hope for the book is to show what Maya learns is that our lives and the impact that we have on other people extends beyond what is obvious to us.

I also want to offer kids a way to reframe the way they think about grief and loss. Different cultural traditions, different faith traditions, have language for thinking about how and when somebody’s earthly life has ended it doesn’t mean that they are gone from us entirely. And so Maya is impacted by this person [Christopher, a brilliant scientist and the creator of the Ralph the Robot] is gone. What she learns is that she, in turn, has the possibility and opportunity to use her own gifts to make an impact on other people. I want to open up some space to talk about grief and also reframe how we think about not only grief, but legacy, and the legacies that we leave behind when we’re gone from one plane of existence.

Julie: Maya will feel very real and relatable for people who grew up in Chicago. I love the reference to the ‘Sears Tower.’ Chicagoans will appreciate that. And then there are other things, such as the everything store. Everybody remembers having an everything store …  but that part of Chicago is disappearing.

Eve: I know. Well, that part is definitely a little autobiographical. I visualize my neighborhood growing up as Maya’s block. And yeah, I remember just going to the corner store and they sold everything. When I first started getting into crafting and yarn, being able to go to the corner store and get that … and across Chicago’s South Side there are so many kinds of what I would call ‘hustle man stations’ where people are just on the corner selling everything. And so Mister Mac and his “everything store” are definitely inspired by those two things. The idea that he basically started out on the corner just selling socks, CDs, toothpaste, whatever, you know, oils, perfumes, shea butter. And then eventually he gets his own store front, and he has the everything store.

Julie: Maya and Mister Mac’s relationship develop into one that resembles a grandchild and her grandpa. Did you have a Mister Mac as a surrogate grandpa?

Eve: Growing up in Chicago, I was raised by my mom primarily and I have a good relationship with my dad. My parents both originally moved here from out of state and so we didn’t have extended family close by when I was growing up. I didn’t have aunts and uncles and cousins who lived in the same city as me. And my mother was very reliant on the many adults in our life. I had a lot of ‘aunt so-and-sos’ that were not biologically my aunts. They were people that my mom kind of recruited into our family because she needed help. And the other thing that I kind of want to pay homage to in Maya’s story is that Mr. Mac is somebody who is not biologically related to Maya but he’s an extremely important adult in her life. I believe in paying homage to those adults who are not our biological kin but who really play a very serious role in raising us and who love us deeply. I really wanted to showcase that in the book as well.

Julie: You grew up in Chicago’s Logan Square community. Can you tell us what else about your neighborhood inspired details in the book.

Eve: The block(s) where I grew up (we moved around a lot) inspired the physical layout of Maya’s block. And her building was our building. Next to us was a house. There was an apartment building next to that and then was the corner store. So in my head, Maya can walk to the corner store, and her mom can pretty much lean out the window and see where she’s going. And so part of it is, how do we create opportunities for kids to have appropriate levels of independence while recognizing that the world is a dangerous and scary place? And who are the adults that are looking out to make sure that she gets to this one place safely, you know?

Julie: One of the things that I loved about the book was just the amount of stuff to look up. Like, in addition to the glossary there’s fact, after fact, after paragraph of items to look up. It’s like, wait a minute … I don’t know who that scientist is!

Eve: You fell into my trap, Julie. That’s awesome. Yeah, and that’s what I hope. You know, I hope that for teachers and classroom educators and educators in any setting, that they assign a chapter in the book and then the kids can look up who that scientist was. When I was a teacher, I really valued those interdisciplinary connective opportunities to bring together different subject areas and to also teach kids to do independent research. So that’s definitely very intentional and I’m glad you fell into my sneaky, sneaky trap.

Julie: The other thing that I loved was your giving space to that kid who wants to expand her universe by working on her robot outside of school. In your own teaching, did you find that there were some kids who just wanted to break out of the box but that school was just so limiting that you needed to offer them those spaces? It’s really generous for you to let kids know that it’s ok to be curious – and even obsessed.

Eve: Yeah, I had those kids all the time. When I look back at my time as a teacher, (I obviously love all my students exactly the same), but some of the moments that are really special that I cherish the most are when a kid came to me with an interest or a thing that they wanted to do and to have the space to support them in that. And yeah, you know, you have to get your homework done. You’ve got to do the basics. But I remember I had a student that was very interested in engineering and for every project he wanted to build something. And he would just build … with no materials … but with like, printer paper that he got from my classroom … he’d able to build a scale model of an airplane.

I also remember a student who wrote this story about the depression and it was called “Chicago Hard Times” because it’s such a good story. He wanted to write it and he wrote some of it in class and then he would ask “can I come during lunch? Can I come after school?” And he sat there and just wrote this book and illustrated it and I think of those moments. I really am so grateful for having had the opportunity to cherish that.

Part of what I try to do now as a scholar is really explore with educators and policymakers how we can make space in and outside of our schools for kids to do that. Because all of us remember and look back at the things we spent the most time on, the thing we were obsessed with, the thing we worked really hard on. It may or may not have been a school assignment or it may have been that weird obsession where you go above and beyond what you’re being asked to do.

I remember when I was Maya’s age, I was obsessed with ancient civilizations. I used to love to read about Egypt and I knew a lot about the Incas and the Mayas. But no adult ever came and helped me do anything with that. It was just like I knew I was interested in archeology, and I bought as many books as I could. But you know, wouldn’t it have been great to get some kind of class credit or something for that? Or at least to just, as you’re saying, just the space to say that that’s okay. And my parents were really the ones that did that.

My dad, for instance, would take us to the Harold Washington Library or to a used bookstore and he’s the one who taught me, like, if you’re interested in King Arthur, let’s go get 10 books about King Arthur, you know? You’re interested in ancient Egypt? Let’s go get 10 books about King Tut or whatever. And so I’m really grateful for the role that my parents played as educators in being able to provide that.

Photo of Eve L. Ewing by Mercedes Zapata