The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘A Rover’s Story’ grew out of a little girl’s empathy

Jasmine Warga watched launch of Mars rover Perseverance with her family. Daughter’s concern for the rover sparked an idea for the book.

Author Jasmine Warga poses with a model rover at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, Ohio. A rover called Res is the main character in her new book, “A Rover's Story.”

“R2-D2 was one of my favorite characters when I was a kid,” said author Jasmine Warga about the lively little robot in the Star Wars franchise.

But it was not until her younger daughter, Juniper, asked a startling question that Warga was inspired to create her own robot character, a Mars rover she named Resilience (nicknamed Res). Warga’s novel “A Rover’s Story” follows Res’s adventures, from being assembled in a NASA laboratory to his journey to Mars, where he collects data to help humans better understand this neighboring planet.

Juniper’s question came as the family (including Warga, her husband and older daughter, Lillian) watched the launch of the most recent rover, Perseverance, in July 2020. As everyone else clapped and cheered, 3-year-old Juniper asked, “Mama, do you think the robot is scared to leave home?”

“What an act of imaginative empathy,” Warga told KidsPost by phone from her home in the Chicago area. “She really put herself in the perspective of the robot and wondered what it might be thinking and feeling, and that gave me the idea” to make the rover a main character.

Researching Mars rovers

Because the book was largely written during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, Warga had to do most of her research at home. She based Res on the rovers Curiosity and Perseverance and things they had encountered on Mars, and she learned much about them from the NASA website about the Rover program (mars.nasa.gov/mer) and a memoir by the chief engineer for Curiosity.

In summer 2021, Warga and her daughters were able to view a model of the Mars rover when they visited the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland. After having imagined and written about a rover’s thoughts and feelings for so long, seeing the model “felt a bit emotional,” said Warga. “It was like seeing a friend.”

Chasing wonder and curiosity

As a kid, Warga was intensely interested in stories and writing. She loved the novels “Ella Enchanted” and “The Giver.” And she remembers her mother reading “Charlotte’s Web” to her as a child, a book that, in turn, she has shared with her daughters.

Growing up in Ohio with a father who emigrated from Jordan, she often felt like she was trying to figure out where she fit in. “I never felt like I quite had a foot in any world,” she said. She often felt out of place when visiting her father’s Middle Eastern family in Jordan and in her mostly White public school in Cincinnati.

She drew upon these feelings to create “Other Words for Home,” a novel in verse about a girl who emigrates from Syria and tries to find a place for herself in the United States. The book won a Newbery Honor in 2020.

Warga’s new novel explores these same feelings. Res, too, must figure out how to survive in a new place. Even though he is a robot, “Res is probably my most autobiographical character,” said Warga, with a laugh. “Res worries, and I worried a lot as a kid.”

In visiting schools, Warga has found that young people are fascinated by what is being discovered on Mars and by the dangers faced by Res and Fly, his friendly drone companion. Students are intrigued by the engineering skill required to construct these robots. And they are curious about the scientists Rania and Xander and their work with Res, and about Rania’s daughter Sophie, who writes to the rover.

Both science and writing draw on the same mind-set and skills, Warga likes to tell her young audience. She is a writer who has also taught sixth-grade science. “Scientists and writers chase wonder and curiosity,” she said. “They pay attention to the world and share what they learn with others.”