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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

A Novel in Words and Pictures

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


Cover art for Wonderstruck children's fiction by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

When he spoke about his new book Wonderstruck at Book Expo America, Brian Selznick said that he wanted to take what he'd learned from writing and illustrating The Invention of Hugo Cabret to a higher level with this new work. I am happy to report that Selznick has done exactly that. Like Hugo, for which he was awarded the Caldecott Medal, Wonderstruck is fiction for middle grade readers and others who appreciate good stories told in both words and pictures.

Wonderstruck: The Unique Format

Traditional picture books are generally about 32 pages with both illustrations and words on every double-page spread that together tell a story for younger children. However, like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Selznick's new work of children's fiction is a picture book for children 9-12 and young teens that is hundreds of pages long and uses many of those pages for wordless sequential art to tell the story. What's different in Wonderstruck is that there are two separate stories, set fifty years apart, one told with words only and one told with illustrations only, until near the end of the book.

The Illustrations

Wonderstruck is more than 630 pages long and included in that are more than 460 pages of illustrations. Brian Selznick's dense pencil drawings are created with pencil on watercolor paper. The movie-like quality of the illustrations comes from the way Selznick treats the sequences of illustrations, panning a scene, moving in for a close-up and viewing scenes from multiple angles, just as a movie maker would.

Wonderstruck: The Stories

In Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick tells the story of Rose, a girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927 completely in pictures, and the story of Ben, a boy living in 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, completely in words, until the two stories come together in 1977 and Rose and Ben meet and learn how their stories connect them to one another.

Both Rose and Ben feel isolated and alone. Both are deaf and both are seeking something.

It's October, 1927. Rose is completely deaf. Her parents are divorced. Rose has no knowledge of Deaf culture and is kept at home with her somewhat distant father and is allowed little interaction with the outside world. She is being tutored in lip-reading and speaking but misses a tutoring session and cuts up the book to make models of skyscrapers. Why did she do that?

There are a lot of other things the reader wonders about, too. Why is Rose so interested in the actress Lillian Mayhew that she has filled a scrapbook with clippings about her and sneaks out of the house to see her latest silent movie?

What does Rose mean when she writes, "Help me" on a piece of paper, climbs out the window of her New Jersey home, runs to the banks of the nearby river, folds the paper into a boat shape and launches it in the water towards New York City? Why does she run away to the city? Who is Walter? Little by little, the mysteries are solved as the reader comes to know more about Rose and the people who are important to her.

It's June, 1977 in Minnesota and it's been three months since Ben Wilson's librarian mother died in a car accident. Ben is deaf in one ear and gets teased about it regularly by his cousin Robby and others. Ben is living with his aunt and uncle now. Ben has never known anything about his father but finds clues when he slips out and goes to the house he and his mother shared. He finds a name - "Danny" - a phone number on a bookstore bookmark and a photo of a man named "Daniel" that he looks like. Lightening strikes when he's calling the number and Ben loses the hearing in his other ear.

Like Rose, Ben is surrounded by mysteries. What does the mysterious quotation his mother liked mean? "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are stars." Who is his father? What's the importance of the little blue book with the title Wonderstruck? What is his father's connection with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City?

Where is his father? Why is Ben so fascinated with collecting and museums? Why does he dream about wolves? Will his hearing come back and what will it be like if it doesn't? But the biggest mystery is his father and Ben leaves on his own for New York City to find his father.

While their stories are 50 years apart, Rose and Ben share a need to belong and many similar experiences. Both are caught in storms. Both run away to the city. Both are seeking a place for themselves. Both end up at the American Museum of Natural History. Through it all, Selznick seamlessly moves the reader from one story to the other.

Fifty years after she runs away, Rose, now in her 60s, and Ben meet and their stories come together, at which point the story continues in both words and pictures to the very satisfactory ending. Nothing is perfect, but it is enough.

The Research and Writing of the Book

One of the most interesting sections of the book is the Acknowledgments section in which Selznick describes how he became interested in Deaf culture after seeing the documentary Through Deaf Eyes and how he researched what it's like to be deaf. He also talks about his interest in the American Museum of Natural History, and the book research he did in New York, New Jersey and Minnesota. He also says he paid homage to E.L. Konigsburg's classic children's book From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by including "references to Konigsburg and her book" in Wonderstruck and challenges readers to see how many of them they can find.

The three-page Selected Bibliography reflects Selznick's research, with sections for Deafness and Deaf Culture, Museums and Cabinets of Wonders, Clothing and Objects in 1927, Stage and Screen, World's Fairs and more. It also includes recommended Web sites.

Artwork from Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, children's fiction

Illustration from Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick


Author and Illustrator Brian Selznick

While Brian Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for illustration for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which he both wrote and illustrated, he has also illustrated numerous other award-winning children's books. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Selznick's books include: When Marian Sang, by Pam Munoz Ryan, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley, Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride, by Pam Munoz Ryan, and Walt Whitman: Words for America. Selznick also wrote The Hugo Movie Companion, a fascinating account of the making of the movie version of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (Source: Scholastic media packet)

The Maurice Sendak Connection

When I saw that Brian Selznick dedicated Wonderstruck to Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are and numerous other award-winning picture books, I wondered why. In an interview in School Library Journal, Brian Selznick explained that "...studying Where the Wild Things Are was definitely a revelation in terms of what you can do when you turn the page, how the structure of a book can underscore the story itself, and the emotions of the plot can all be played out in how the book itself is built. Where the pictures are, what the pictures are doing, when you turn the page, why you turn the page, where there's text, where there's no text. That was probably the most influential book on the work I do as an adult, and I feel like every book I do is just a riff on Where the Wild Things Are." (Source: "Wonder Boy" by Ken Setterington, 8/1/11 School Library Journal)

Wonderstruck: My Recommendation

I recommend Wonderstruck for a wide range of ages, from 9-14 ,all the way to adults. Younger kids may not pick up on all of the detail and meaning in some of the illustrations, such as why Rose is so unhappy about the advent of "talkies," but will still gain a lot in reading the book. The book will especially appeal to kids who love movies and "reading pictures" and those who enjoy mystery and adventure that involves kids about their age. With both a male and a female protagonist, the book should appeal to both boys and girls. (Scholastic Press, An Imprint of Scholastic. 2011. ISBN: 9780545027892)
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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