When I first laid eyes on How To Say Goodbye in Robot my first response was "OOoooOOH", hushed and warbling, you know the sound. The art is so cool. First of all Hot Pink, come on, and second, there are these beautiful hand-drawn details on the inner flap and on the back. The front has a phone, but the lines come through as pink and a bit of light blue. On the back is a drawn phone jack and there are phone cords framing the blurb inside. The whole design screams Cared For In Great Detail.
And it's also true of the story in Robot. There are so many details--about people and places, facts--and each seem hand-crafted, much-thought-upon, and simply Neat. This is a character-driven book with many many little treasures inside.
Bea is new at school, just moved into town, and is a total fish-out-of-water as all of the students have been together since kindergarten. At morning assembly on her first day, Bea sits beside Ghost Boy, "We had a funeral for him once...in seventh grade. Someone spread a rumor that Jonah was dead, and then when he showed up for school, we all pretended we couldn't see him or hear him, to try to make him think he was a ghost". Attempting to talk to Jonah is like talking to a glass wall; he's snappy and sidestepping with everyone. Then, one day he seems to take on substance and tells Bea about The Night Lights, a late night radio talkshow. That night she sits in her room and tunes in, and she hears a familiar voice on the air.
At this point in reading I excitedly thought "Pump Up The Volume??!" And it is like it in a way, but just not the way I expected. The Night Lights is a corner in the world for misfits and insomniacs, dreamers and also crazy people like Don Berman. Ghost Boy phones in regularly and when she works up the courage so does "Robot Girl". Bea's mother gives her this nickname because Bea doesn't seem to have emotions. Bea's mother, on the other hand, seems to have too many emotions and they leak out of her in bizarre ways (there is this whole Chicken drapes thing where Bea's mom cuts them up to make outfits and earrings).
Night after night Bea and Jonah listen to their radio show and Jonah begins to tell her things about his life. And he's got a pretty dramatic one. Bea tries to keep up as best she can, but things start to get very intense.
There is some great humor in Robot. The previously mentioned Dom Berman is one of the voices heard on the show. He regularly phones in disguising his voice and basically acting like the Peeves of the book. Later on, when the Night Lights get together for a dinner, Bea has this encounter with Don Berman:
Jonah was talking with a chubby middle-aged man with stringy hair, a goatee, and a smug look on his face. His hands and jowls trembled. Don Berman.
"Don, we're huge fans," I said.
"Don, we're huge fans," he shot back in a high-pitched voice meant to mock me.
What a jerk, I thought, but I didn't care, because he was Don Berman, and that's what Don Berman did.
Or when Bea first sees Tom Garber, who has actually dated every girl in school and a few from surrounding schools:
Before he sat down, my internal heat-seekers sensed what was coming my way: deep blue eyes that melted girls like Velveeta in a microwave.
A mysterious force vacuumed the air out of the lunchroom.
"Hey, girls," Tom Garber said. He flashed his teeth and mirowaved the entire table as he slo-mo'd by. The light glinting off his glasses temporarily blinded me. "Bonjour, Beatrice."
Of everything, I loved the portions of chat on the radio show. You get this sense of people in the city, unknown to each other, sharing their loneliness. Even Don Berman. When the events with Jonah's family take on the dramatic proportions of a gothic novel (also something Natalie writes into the text), I was a little put off, but realized that it was self-aware and had more to do with the inner life of Jonah. When the book ended I thought, "Yep, pretty much how it had to go". I felt it was a perfect way to close such a strange and nearer the end, haunting story.