Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
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)
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 email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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