Brian Selznick's THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET was a sensation when it was first published in 2007. Selznick, who is best known for his illustrations, crafted a book of 500+ pages whose story was told as much through its pictures as through its verbal narrative. It was a critical hit and a bestseller. When it won the Caldecott Medal, the choice was hugely controversial, given that the award for the best illustrated book for children is typically bestowed on a picture book. Now, Selznick follows up that beloved novel with WONDERSTRUCK, an even more tightly crafted blend of storytelling through words and pictures.
"Rich, multilayered, and emotionally, visually and narratively fulfilling, WONDERSTRUCK will certainly find its place among children's classics as well."
The wordless format of much of the book's story is especially appropriate, given that the two main characters are both deaf and consequently have a complicated relationship with language, especially of the spoken variety. We first meet Ben, whose story is told through verbal narration. It's 1977, and Ben has been living with his mother near Gunflint Lake in far northern Minnesota. He's obsessed with visions of wolves, and with the impulse to collect the small treasures he discovers during his explorations of the lake and the forests around it. After his mother's death in a car accident, though, Ben feels alone, even more so after a lightning strike causes him to go completely deaf (he was already deaf in one ear before the accident). He loves his aunt and uncle, but they don't really understand him. So when Ben finds clues about his unknown father's identity and whereabouts among his mother's things, he decides to run away from Minnesota to New York City to see if he can discover where he really belongs.
Simultaneously, Selznick tells the story through pictures (marvelously detailed pencil drawings in two-page spreads) of Rose, a young girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1927. She can see Manhattan from her house, but her overprotective parents won't let their daughter travel there. Instead, she satisfies herself by making miniatures of the New York City skyscrapers and landmarks she loves. She adores the movies, but is crushed when the installation of sound technology means that she will no longer be able to enjoy films in the same way that hearing audience members do. She runs away to New York City, on the trail of the film actress she loves most of all.
Ben’s and Rose's journeys culminate at the American Museum of Natural History, where they discover a gallery of wonders that suits each of their interests in collecting artifacts and creating detailed dioramas --- and, in unexpected ways, the answer to both of their problems. When their stories converge, the reader's feeling of satisfaction is almost palpable. Although neither one has an uncomplicated happy ending, their stories --- individually and, more importantly, jointly --- offer a hopeful glimpse of connection, understanding, friendship and family.
In addition to being a thoroughly captivating story (or stories), WONDERSTRUCK is a delightful history of museum curatorship, a love letter to New York City and to northern Minnesota, and an homage to that other beloved museum-centric classic of children's literature, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER. Rich, multilayered, and emotionally, visually and narratively fulfilling, WONDERSTRUCK will certainly find its place among children's classics as well.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 15, 2011