Look, I’m feeling too lazy right now to come up with a more creative blog post title.
Wonderstruck (Scholastic Press 2011) is Brian Selznick’s much-anticipated follow-up to his rule-breaking, genre-bending, Martin Scorsese-adapting, Caldecott-winning middle grade novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Using the same mixture of prose and wordless illustration that made Hugo such a critical darling, Wonderstruck tells the story of two kids, born 50 years apart, who are just trying to find their place in the world. In 1977, Ben (whose story is told almost entirely in words) is going through the house that he used to share with his recently deceased mother when he comes across evidence of the father he’s never met. Just as he’s picking up the phone to follow a lead on his dad, lighting strikes the phone lines and Ben is seriously injured, losing his hearing in the process. While in the hospital, Ben impulsively decides to sneak out and hop on a bus to New York to try and find his father. He eventually seeks refuge at the American Museum of Natural History when his search comes up with nothing but dead-ends. Meanwhile in 1927, Rose (whose story is told almost entirely in pictures) is a deaf girl who feels trapped in her cold, loveless home. She copes by sneaking out to the cinema to see movies starring her favorite silent-movie actress. When she notices that the theater is installing equipment for those new-fangled talkies, she’s so upset that she runs away to New York City to find her favorite actress. It does not go well, so Rose finds sanctuary at the American Museum of Natural History. Are you sensing a pattern here? Ben and Rose’s lives continue to parallel before finally intersecting in a really interesting way.
Before I get into the meat of the story, I want to briefly comment on the design of the book. I’m not talking about the illustrations, which except for a few wonky figures, are gorgeous. I’m talking about things like endpapers, borders, folios, and fonts. AKA things I never really paid attention to before I worked in publishing. I think with a story like this that is so visual,the book design is crucial. The design elements aren’t showy, but they add to the magical, old-fashioned children’s book vibe without distracting the reader from the story.
Though it’s still unusual, the mixture of text and illustrations here doesn’t have quite the same novelty that it did with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. And for some reason I thought that the two stories would be more segregated, like you would get all of Rose’s story and then all of Ben’s. Instead, Selznick weaves the stories together to truly emphasize how much Rose’s and Ben’s lives parallel each other despite living 50 years apart. I do wish that Rose’s story was developed more though. I liked that because her story was illustrated that we are forced to use our imaginations more, but it also means that we don’t go as deep inside her head as we do with Ben. The other big problem with the format is that when the two story lines finally intersect, a big expositional wrap-up has to happen in order for the plot to make sense, but it slows the story momentum to a crawl.
Despite those minor gripes, the format of Wonderstruck is still a very effective method of storytelling, particularly in Selznick’s very skilled hands. The style of illustrations combined with the old-fashioned tone of the text gives off a fairy-taleish vibe, though the story is grounded in the real world. I think think that vibe helps the reader overlook some of the more implausible elements of the story (deaf kids run away to New York and nothing too terrible happens? Umm, ok.) At least the adult readers. The middle grade target audience is probably already more likely to forgive that kind of stuff. And though the story is certainly emotional, it never crosses the line to mawkish or cheesy, which would be very easy to do considering the protagonists are two deaf kids who have THE WORST LUCK IN THE WORLD. I totally cried while reading the book, but never felt like I was manipulated into doing so.
I know the size and page count of Wonderstruck might be intimidating to younger readers, but considering 460 of the 640 pages are illustrations, it takes no time at all to read. So not only do you get to experience a beautiful story, but you get the smug satisfaction of reading a long book so quickly. It’s a win-win! So check it out if you have the chance; it’s worth your time.