Wonder Struck is yet another tour de force from Brian Selznick. The story is about two kids fifty years apart in time who are each trying to find where they belong in the world. Like The Invention of Hugo Cabret (see my review, here), the story is told in both text and images, and oh, what images they are!
The story of Ben, age 12, takes place in 1977, initially in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. The story of Rose, also age 12, is told almost entirely through pictures, and begins in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. The stories parallel one another as the scene changes to New York City, and they eventually converge in a surprising way at the American Museum of Natural History.
Both of the children have a love for collecting tokens of memories, and for curating them (organizing and looking after them). Ben carried with him a small box, in which he kept mementos that were precious to him. When he got to the museum, and saw the “Cabinets of Wonders” it was as if he were home. And he comes to realize that there is a greater meaning to this activity:
“[Ben] thought about what it meant to curate your own life… What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go into your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house, and his books…. He realized he’d already begun doing it. Maybe, though Ben, we are all cabinets of wonders.”
Discussion: When we meet Ben, we discover that he is deaf in one ear, and later sustains an injury to the other ear. Rose was born deaf, but to hearing parents. It is fitting therefore that Rose’s story be told only in pictures, because her world has always been a silent one. Like Rose, we observe how much there is to learn just from focusing on the visual.
On the meta level, Selznick pays tribute to a number of giants on whose shoulders he now so ably stands. One is the great writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak, to whom this book is dedicated. Much of Selznick’s style seems similar to Sendak’s. Faces and eyes are large and expressive, and bodies are blocky and more suggestion of function than form – a technique that puts the focus on the feelings expressed by the character. The landscapes, especially the cityscapes and museum interiors, are full of wondrous details. All of the pictures are rendered cinematically, zooming in to make a point or convey an emotion.
Another tribute paid by Selznick is to E. L. Konigsburg, who won the 1968 Newbery Medal for From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In that book, Claudia Kincaid, an 11-year-old girl, runs away from home because she thinks her parents do not appreciate her. She takes her younger brother Jamie with her, and they hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. If you have read Wonder Struck, you will see the parallels.
Evaluation: What can be more wonderful for a reader than when an author follows up a fabulous book with another fabulous book? Selznick, for all the influences on his work, is sui generis, and should not be missed.
Published by Scholastic Press, 2011