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Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

By Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press
ISBN: 9780545027892
Grades 4-7
In Stores Sept. 13, 2011

*Best New Book*


When The Invention of Hugo Cabret came out in 2007, it felt like more than a simple blurring of genres, it felt like an innovation. Beautifully crafted and well-received, its deserved victory lap was impressive – a tradition-busting Caldecott award, bestseller lists, a National Book Award finalist nod, even an upcoming Martin Scorsese film adaptation. Almost four years later Selznick returns with Wonderstruck, and it’s fantastic. Not only has Selznick adapted his Hugo Cabret format to a new story, but he’s actually created a tale that is more of a natural fit for this sort of visual storytelling. An engaging mystery full of heart, it will likely go down as one of the most memorable books of 2011.

The year is 1977 and Ben Wilson is mourning the loss of his mother. Ben never knew his father, but going through his mom’s possessions in their small cabin in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota leads to a clue about his identity. Already deaf in one ear, a lighting strike leaves Ben completely without hearing. In the hospital recovering, he escapes and sets out for New York City, with hopes of finding his father. Instead, he finds himself in the American Museum of Natural History, staring at a diorama with an unnerving connection to his hometown. In 1927, Rose lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. Due to her deafness, Rose is kept inside, where she recreates the New York skyline out of paper and closely follows her favorite actress. Like Ben 50 years later, Rose escapes to the city. When she seeks out the actress of her obsession, it turns out the two aren’t strangers. Eventually, the two storylines mix, and we learn that Ben and Rose have a connection that brings both of their histories together.

While Cabret cut to illustrations when the action warranted it, Wonderstruck does something different. Rather than one central story told in text and images, it tells one storyline (Rose in 1927) with artwork and the other (Ben in 1977) through text. The level of difficulty is high, as each piece must fit together seamlessly. Selznick pulls it off.

There is some sophisticated storytelling on display here, and it’s hard not to admire the author’s guts. Wonderstruck asks quite a bit of its audience as they piece together a plot that isn’t necessarily served up on a platter. And don’t mistake sophisticated for slow – the pace is always brisk, accelerating forward with the help of illustrated segments that keep the pages turning.

The artwork is exceptional, wordlessly telling Rose’s story with warm, heavily shaded pencil illustrations. In essence, the reader experiences the world as Rose does – without sound. In the realm of storytelling, this is an astonishing feat.

If we were to apply science, Selznick should win the 2012 Caldecott. I mean, he won with Hugo Cabret, and he’s upped the ante with Wonderstruck, creating 100 more illustrations and an even more appropriate melding of text and artwork. A shoe-in, right? But science never works when it comes to literary awards, and I wonder if Cabret‘s 2008 win hurts Wonderstruck‘s chances. Here’s hoping this isn’t the case.

Remarkable in format and story, Wonderstruck is a book that’s easy to get behind. Expect to find it on every “Best of 2011” list out there.

Review copy from the publisher

Watch Brian Selznick talk about the making of Wonderstruck in the Scholastic Fall Librarian Preview:

(Thanks to Watch. Connect. Read. for the link)

Also reviewed by Abby the Librarian, DogEar

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Can’t wait to see it! So glad to hear it takes the previous achievement to an even higher level.

    I’d love to see what the eyes on the spines of the two books look like side by side. Do they match up? Are they off-kilter? Hugo’s spine creeps my wife out a bit… she feels like it’s watching her.

    Congrats to Brian Selznick!

  2. Yes, Mr. Selznick definitely impresses with this one. I don’t know if I like it more than Cabret, but if not, it’s very very close.
    The spines don’t match up, but the faces on them are exactly the same in their positioning. They will look great side by side on the shelf. Or, in your wife’s case, double creepy.

  3. Not sure if my “can’t wait” made it, so I’ll say it again: Looking forward to this one. (And I hope I’m not speaking in stereo here.)

    Thanks for the review and sneak-peek.

  4. I am pea green with envy that you have read this already. I can hardly wait. I really enjoyed your review.

  5. I would like to see the following stickers on this book: Newbery Honor, Caldecott Honor, National Book Award Winner.

  6. Yes! I agree with everything you’ve said, only you said it much more eloquently than I.

  7. Sam Bloom says

    Yes, Travis – you are right, this is one of the best books of the year. I can’t see anything else touching this in terms of Caldecott, but then again (a) I’m not on the committee looking at all of the zillions of books they’ve received in the mail this year + criteria considerations, and (b) I’m biased because I’m a big ol Selznick fanboy. But still, this book…

  8. I really liked the Invention of Hugo Cabret and Selznick’s illustrations in the Doll People series. Thanks for the heads up on his latest. I will definitely hunt it down to read it.


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