Told with Andrew Smith’s signature dark humor, Rabbit & Robot tells the story of Cager Messer, a boy who’s stranded on the Tennessee—his father’s lunar-cruise utopia—with insane robots.
Cager has been transported to the Tennessee, a giant lunar-cruise ship orbiting the moon that his dad owns, by Billy and Rowan to help him shake his Woz addiction. Meanwhile, Earth, in the midst of thirty simultaneous wars, burns to ash beneath them. And as the robots on board become increasingly insane and cannibalistic, and the Earth becomes a toxic wasteland, the boys have to wonder if they’ll be stranded alone in space forever.
In his new novel, Andrew Smith, Printz Honor author of Grasshopper Jungle, will make you laugh, cry, and consider what it really means to be human.
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A Reading Group Guide to
Rabbit & Robot
By Andrew Smith
About the Book
Kidnapped by his best friend Billy, sixteen-year-old Cager Messer boards one of his father’s luxurious cruise ships, the Tennessee, currently orbiting the moon. What begins as a rescue mission to help Cager overcome his Woz addiction quickly turns into a sensational journey fraught with ridiculous antics and sexual tension. Cager and Billy, misfits marginalized by their positions of privilege, join a zany cast of eccentric cogs—mechanized machines appearing as almost-human caricatures or irritating beasts. By way of uninvited blue alien shapeshifters, a worm begins infecting the cogs, turning them into insane, unrestrained, cannibalistic lunatics. The humans on board, including two female stowaways, must find a way to escape and return safely to earth. With absurd leaps of imagination, this delightfully preposterous futuristic fantasy encourages the reader to question what it is that makes us human, and what that means to each of us.
1. What do you think of the book’s cover design? What does it immediately suggest? Did it make you want to read the book?
2. An overarching tone of absurdity balances several underlying weightier themes. What are some of the recognizable, deeply rooted themes in this novel?
3. Cager’s first-person narrative reveals his thoughts and motivations. Do you find Cager’s voice to be relatable?
4. Cager’s best friend takes him on the Tennessee to help save him from his Woz addiction. To what lengths would you go to help a friend overcome an addiction or deal with a tough situation? How do you think you’d respond?
5. Cager trusts Billy because Billy never lies to him. Is this trust mutual? Do you think we should be held accountable for the well-being and actions of others? Why is it important to have people in your life whom you can trust or depend on?
6. Why do you think the author chose to open the novel with a scene taken from the middle of the story? When you came upon it midway through the book, did you have a different reaction to its tone?
7. Do you think Cager’s assessments of himself are accurate? Explain your reasoning. To what extent do you allow labels to define you or your friends? What are the consequences or results of doing this?
8. Referring to the poem “Anecdote of the Jar” by Wallace Stevens, the author suggests the boys are symbolically trapped in an empty jar on the Tennessee. Have you ever felt trapped? By what or by whom? In what ways? Discuss.
9. Why do you think Cager was infatuated with Lourdes? Why do you think Cager found Milo endearing? What humanlike characteristics do Lourdes and Milo have? How would you respond to them? What purpose do Lourdes and Milo serve in the story?
10. How does the author present the diversity of sexual identity differences in the novel?
11. Name some of Meg’s personality traits. What does Cager admire most about her? Why do you think Meg was so reluctant to open up to Cager? What effect does this have on him? Discuss how their relationship changes throughout the story.
12. What distinguishes Parker from the other cogs? Why do you think Cager changes his opinion of Parker? What insights does Cager gain about himself from his experiences with Parker?
13. What hints did the author offer to suggest Rowan’s true nature as a cog? Why do you think Cager and Billy were oblivious to these hints? Do you think Rowan should have disclosed his identity to the boys sooner? Explain your reasoning. How much of your true self do you reveal to others? How much do you think others reveal to you?
14. Both Cager and Billy face multiple fears on their bizarre journey on the Tennessee. Discuss one or two of these fears. Do you sympathize with Cager and Billy? Have you ever had to confront your fears and do something you didn’t think you were courageous enough to do? What was the result? What advice would you give someone about facing their fears?
15. What do we learn about Jeffrie? How does this discovery impact the story? What is her role in this adventure?
16. How does the author present authority figures? Consider the behavior of Captain Myron, Dr. Geneva, Reverend Bingo, and Queen Dot. How do their actions affect the story? What does this suggest to you?
17. The book poses the idea that “an army begins with one.” Describe the visible and invisible worms. What greater meaning does the infestation suggest?
18. What does the author suggest by saying that wars don’t just fight themselves? What does this mean to you? Can you think of other examples in our history where this is the case?
19. Humorously absurd images of festering decay, deterioration, degradation, and barbaric atrocities are prevalent in the novel. Explain Smith’s purpose as he makes use of these bizarre images. How do they relate to the novel’s themes?
20. Consider the emotional struggles of humiliation, shame, loneliness, isolation, vulnerability, and helplessness in the story. Why do you think the author includes these in the narrative? How do the characters use emotions to help them connect or make decisions, and how do these emotions hinder them?
21. Which aspects of the story were most engaging, disturbing, grotesque, corrupt, humorous, clever, ludicrous, or heartwarming to you? Discuss.
22. In your opinion, what were Cager’s, Billy’s, Meg’s, Rowan’s, Parker’s, and Maurice’s greatest moments? Discuss the reasons for your decisions. Which scenes and characters did you relate to most? For what reasons?
23. A philosophical tiger cog quoted Sartre, saying, “‘I cannot escape anguish because I am anguish.’” What do you think this means? How does this concept relate to Cager’s eventual realization that “Meg’s code didn’t just unlock the lifeboats; it unlocked everything. Meg Hatfield’s code was the lifeboat in itself”? What was Meg’s code? How did it prove a turning point for Cager in his journey toward a new understanding of himself and his actions?
24. How does your impression of Cager change throughout the story? In what ways does Cager find the freedom to be who he really wants to be? Do you think he’s ready to move forward and lead a meaningful and fulfilling life?
25. Think about the book’s audience. To whom might this type of narrative appeal? What kind of culture is reflected? How did you feel riding the Tennessee on this elaborately insane journey?
26. Was this book meaningful to you? Do you see life differently after reading it? Did it cause you to think about certain people differently? If so, how might this affect your approach to people or situations in the future? Discuss.
27. Putting all the zaniness and over-the-top-antics aside, what is at the heart of this story? What advice might Cager from the end of the book give to Cager at the beginning of the book?
28. Would you recommend Rabbit & Robot to a friend? For what reasons? Craft a one-sentence tagline for the book.
1. The subtext of Rabbit & Robot can be interpreted and experienced on several levels. Some may see it as a satire with unmistakable undertones that examine technological, sociocultural, political, and educational concerns. Others may consider it to be a symbolic allegorical tale about mental illness, familial relationships, the corruptions of human nature, and addiction in its many forms—or it could be viewed as a parody that imitates and exaggerates these concerns. Others may consider it to be an extended didactic parable with universal truths and lessons of a moral nature. Still others may enjoy it merely as a fantastic wild ride for pure amusement and entertainment. What is your opinion of using these literary devices to explore the book? Do you feel these analyses to be useful? How did you experience the story? Discuss with your peers. Consider taking one memorable scene and comparing your classmate’s various interpretations and themes.
2. In an interview, Andrew Smith suggested he felt like he was trapped inside a machine floating in space with a bunch of insane robots, and then came to realize the machine he was trapped inside was social media, and he felt compelled to write about it. On the surface, the use of social media provides us with a sense of community and important resources for making connections. However, an increased need for social media may actually sabotage its benefits. To what extent do you think social media use replaces real-life experiences? Is it a satisfying substitute for real-life friendships? Do you feel like your social media persona matches how you act in the real world? Do you find that the more you use social media, the more you depend on it? How might this dependence relate to other addictive behaviors? Discuss with your peers.
3. It's been reported that frequent social media use rewires the developing teenage brain to constantly seek out immediate gratification. For current research on social media addiction, read “Looking for ‘Likes’: Teens and Social Media Addiction” at www.newportacademy.com/resources/mental-health. Then read the October 2014 journal review published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking by Igor Pantic, MD, PhD, for valuable insights and research into online social networking and mental health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4183915/). Work with your classmates to organize a panel discussion that explores how social media can both support and compromise development as you mature into adulthood. Select volunteers to debate both sides of the issue using information from the articles you've read, and discuss steps for the future.
4. Consider Cager’s confession: “This book is the list of my life adrift, compiled while we all make a hopeful attempt to get back home. That’s really what all books are, isn’t it? I mean, lists of secrets and things you only wish you’d done. . . .” As Andrew Smith suggests, there are countless novels written for children and young adults about leaving home and making hopeful attempts to return. Whether tumbling down a rabbit hole, passing through a secret door inside a wardrobe, crash-landing on an uninhabited island, or being carried away by a cyclone, multiple adventures lead us to new worlds that must be challenged and explored. Choose a classic novel about leaving and returning home, and compare and contrast its fundamental themes, characterizations, settings, and plots with those found in Rabbit & Robot. Discuss your findings with your peers. Consider the lack of adult supervision or the way adults are portrayed, the allegories or metaphors, and how protagonists evolve throughout the stories.
5. Make a list of personality traits or actions that surprised you and questions you have for tech developers. Then research technology related to human emotions and robots by reading the article called “Emotions Reconsidered: How Robots May Experience Feelings” at https://www.tested.com/tech/robots/455319-emotions-reconsidered-how-robots-may-experience-feelings/. Do these findings fit your expectations and answer your questions, or cause you to pose new questions? Make predictions for how robots will be integrated into society in twenty-five years. What might we have gained or lost? Why is there so much we don't yet know?
6. For current research into lunar space travel, refer to the April 23, 2018 article in the Orlando Sentinel (www.orlandosentinel.com/news/space/...nasa-lunar-orbital) as NASA looks to make decisions on the next steps in developing orbiting lunar base space-to-moon spacecraft. Do you think it's important for us to expand our reach and send more people to space? Write an essay imagining your experience on a spacecraft. What might you see and learn about? What kind of situations should you be prepared for? Do you have any doubts or fears about leaving the world you know behind?
7. The Tennessee’s setting is essential to the story, containing absurdities rich with descriptive imagery, wild plot, and sensationally dramatic characterization suggestive of a screenplay. Visualize the special effects needed for the frenetic over-the-top and out-of-control action; think about other book-to-movie adaptations that you've liked. Imagine who you would cast in the lead roles. How would you direct the chaos from one precarious encounter to the next? How would you help set the mood without dialogue? Discuss your ideas with your peers.
This guide was prepared in 2018 by Judith Clifton, Educational Consultant, Chatham, MA.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Andrew Smith is the author of several novels for young adults, including Winger, Stand-Off, 100 Sideways Miles, and the Michael L. Printz Honor Book Grasshopper Jungle. He lives in a remote area in the mountains of Southern California with his family, two horses, two dogs, and three cats. He doesn’t watch television, and occupies himself by writing, bumping into things outdoors, and taking ten-mile runs on snowy trails.
"Readers will enjoy unraveling the meaning within this provocative jaunt... which dissects society, technology, othering, and what makes humanity human."
– Publishers Weekly starred review
"Smith has woven an unpredictable, gross, and prescient rumination on modernity, media consumption, and machine-aided communication... Those delving into Smith's zany dystopia will find much to laugh and gasp at, including comedia and serious musings upon sex and violence. But most of all, they will find many deep, essential questions worth pondering."
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