Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Selznick, Brian. Wonderstruck. New York: Scholastic. 2011.

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Now that the movie Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s wonderful The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which I wrote about on this blog here), has apparently been nominated for more Oscars than any other movie this year, it’s time to see what the imaginative man who created that story went on to write after it. I promise you, he’s done it again. I was so afraid his new book wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to Hugo Cabret. In fact, when I first read about its plot, I was quite sure I wasn’t going to be interested, but thenΒ a friend of mine wrote a blog post about it and convinced me it would be well worth reading.

Brian Selznick is as imaginative as ever with this new tale, told, like Hugo Cabret, in both pictures and prose. Two stories become one when a young deaf girl runs away from Hoboken, NJ to live in NYC (told in pictures), and a deaf boy from Minnesota heads to NYC, in search of his father, after his mother dies (told mostly in prose).Β I’ve always been picky about children’s books’ illustrators, but Selznick’s solid lines and use of shading snap his characters and settings to life. Somehow, he manages to take ages-old children’s stories: orphans, children in search of parents, runaways, mysteries parents have left to their children, etc. and breathe new life into them.

Hugo Cabret was magic in what it did for Paris and silent movies. This one is magic in what it does for New York and museums. Selznick nods his head to E. L. Konigsburg who mesmerized young readers like me long before the Nights in the Museum movies were made. In a previous life, I had the pleasure, once,Β of going behind the scenes at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, which would inspire anyone to want to work for the museum — well, anyone with a curiosity about natural history — and Selznick captures that “museum-behind-the-museum” so well, especially from a child’s point of view.

I’m impressed by all the research that goes into Selznick’s books. Wonderstruck has an extensive bibliography that has, of course, caught my eye. The idea for this book began to germinate while he was researching silent movies for Hugo Cabret and discovered the interesting fact that before the “talkies” came into being, movies had been a form of entertainment that could be shared by both deaf and hearing people alike. That fact interested him so much that he began to do research on deaf culture.

I love the fact that this is an old-fashioned children’s book in that it doesn’t talk down to its audience. Selznick expects his young readers to be curious, to be able to understand complicated concepts, and to be interested in a multitude of ideas and situations. He also creates brave, young characters who are innovative in ways that help them survive. I can easily see kids “playing” Wonderstruck the way my siblings and friends and I played things like Harriet the Spy when we were young. I can also see kids (or librarians!) turning to the bibliography to find out more about the things in the book that interest them.

I’d argue (and have) with those who’d call Selznick’s books “graphic novels.” They’re not. I like what he calls them: novels in words and pictures. That’s a much more accurate picture. I will say he’s probably a better artist than writer. His prose isn’t anything special — not bad, just not special — but it doesn’t matter because it all comes together so very well. Enjoy this one with your children or by yourself.