Growing Bookworms Newsletter: August 30
The Eleventh Plague: Jeff Hirsch

Wonderstruck: Brian Selznick

Book: Wonderstruck
Author: Brian Selznick
Pages: 608
Age Range: 9-12

51vXowQorEL._SL500_AA300_ Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick's new book, is "a novel in words and pictures", like Selznick's Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The text begins in Gunflint, Minnesota, in 1977, and tells the story of a 12-year-old boy named Ben whose mother has just died. Ben, who is already deaf in one ear, loses his hearing completely early in the book. Despite this setback, he sets out on a quest to New York to find his unknown father. Ben's story, told in words, is interspersed with the story, told in pictures, of Rose. Rose's story begins in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. Selznick uses occasional sketches of notes and newspaper articles to add words to Rose's primarily visual story.

Despite their differences in geography and time, certain parallels between Rose and Ben's stories become apparent to the careful reader. Eventually, both Ben and Rose end up at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where they each encounter the Cabinet of Wonders.

Wonderstruck is the kind of book where you're never quite sure whether or not something fantastical is going to happen next. Selznick suggests otherworldly adventures even when depicting something as mundane as a bus trip or a cab ride. Ben's deafness alone lends an otherworldly quality to the book, as he (not having yet learned lip reading or sign language) is isolated from the people around him. Like this:

"Ben looked around in astonishment. Taking in all the colors and smells and movements, he felt like he'd fallen over the edge of a waterfall. He was sure he had never seen this many people in his entire life on Gunflint Lake. Everyone everywhere seemed to be a different color, as if the cover of his social studies textbook had come to life around him.... Ben tried to imagine the honking, screaming, screeching soundtrack, but to him it unfolded noiselessly, like a scary movie with the sound turned off. All he could hear in his mind was David Bowie singing about Major Tom." (Page 264-265, ARC)

The ways that Ben finds to communicate with people (a mix of notes and lip-reading and gestures) lend a mixed media element to Wonderstruck, additional to the story told in text and pictures. Wonderstruck is as much an investigation into how deaf people communicate as it is a story of a boy's quest to find his father.

Wonderstruck is also a celebration of museums and the people who love them. There are elements of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to Wonderstruck. And there is the coolest ever model of New York City (which I had to look up to make sure was a real thing, the Panorama), completely woven in as part of the story. Libraries are magical in Wonderstruck, too. Here's my favorite passage:

"He wished that he was with his mom in her library, where everything was safe and numbered and organized by the Dewey decimal system. Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you'd be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad." (Page 440-441, ARC)

Don't you love this kid?

Despite being 600 pages long, the illustrated sections fly by and make Wonderstruck a quick read. Selznick repeatedly does this thing where on several pages in a room he gradually zooms in on part of a drawing, taking the reader, for example, straight into the glow at the heart of a wolf's eye, or showing, with increasing detail and foreboding, a mystery man's hand knocking on a door. His illustrations are detailed and excellent at conveying mood.

The pictorial part of Wonderstruck is a veritable treasure hunt for curious readers. Rose has postcards on her wall from Walter. Who is Walter? Will we see him crop up in the story? What does the partially glimpsed title of that book mean? Who just grabbed Rose by the shoulder? Rose's sadness and determination are conveyed visually, even as Ben's are conveyed with words.

Wonderstruck is a remarkable book by a multi-talented and hard-working author. Although everything comes together seamlessly in the story, a detailed notes section and bibliography at the end give a glimpse into the research that was required to pull off this book. Wonderstruck is a triumph for Brian Selznick (definitely no one-hit wonder as a novelist), and a gift to readers of all ages. Highly recommended, and certain to be a huge success.

Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: September 13, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2011 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.