Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck is a book that you read with great expectations, if you’ve read anything else by Brian Selznick.  Expectations run particularly high if you’ve read The Invention of Hugo Cabret (linked to my review), his Caldecott winner of a few years back.  This review at A Fuse 8 Production is the one that alerted me to the fact that Brian Selznick had done it again, so I immediately added this book to my Amazon shopping cart.

Reading this book is like being pulled along both emotionally and intellectually by two invisible strings.  Ben’s story is told (mostly) in prose; Rose is told (mostly) in pictures.  Ben’s sad story of loss and mystery never goes on for more than four pages or so before the reader is whisked back in time some fifty years a girl named Rose who loves silent films and the theater but whose life is just as mysterious as Ben’s.  The perfect moment in the book–one that is as audible-gasp inducing as any moment in any book I’ve read–happens when their stories converge.

The pictures are what make this novel special, of course.  The prose story is nicely paced and plotted, but illustration (and the marriage of the two!) is where Selznick shines.  I love how he shows the big picture and then zeroes in, page after page after page, on one element of the big picture.  This never fails to achieve the intended effect, whether it’s to emphasize Rose’s emotion or subtly emphasize some thematic element.  It strikes me that even with all of its action, Rose’s story is deafeningly quiet.  It is very much like being inside one of Rose’s beloved silent films, which is certainly no accident but a testimony to Selznick‘s genius.  As of the writing of this review, Wonderstruck is in the graphic novels category of Cybils nominees, a designation that I don’t quite get.  Now, I know next-to-nothing about graphic novels, but Wonderstruck seems more like a work of middle grade fiction very innovatively told than a graphic novel, which marries picture and text in an entirely different way (or at least I think it does).  Any graphic novels fans out there want to chime in?

I really love this story, but there are a couple of things that bother me about it.  The first one is the lack of chapters.  Divided into three parts (‘though honestly, the first division page passed without my noticing it at all), this is essentially one continuous story.  The divisions occur as the story moves from words to pictures, but that really wasn’t enough for me.  I never really wanted to quit reading at the end of a prose portion since I knew the following picture sequence would somehow relate, and vice-versa.  This just isn’t practical for someone who reads in spits and spurts, so I would have appreciated some natural breaking points.  In this regard Wonderstruck works very much like an extended (extended!) picture book. While I’m being nitpicky, I’ll mention one more thing:  it sort of drove me nuts the way the pages are designed–two pages will be full of text, and then sometimes the next two will have huge margins around them.  I know this is because every picture is a two-page spread, so there couldn’t be an odd page leftover for a picture, but still.  It bothered me.

The second problematic area for me has to do with content.  Really, this issue has very little to do with how I feel about the book, but since I know some of my blog readers use my reviews to help select books for their children, I thought I would mention it.  (Spoiler alert!)  Ben, the boy whose story is told in words, ends up in New York City searching for his father.  He has something confirmed to him that he had already figured–that his father and mother weren’t married.  While this is certainly not uncommon in children’s literature, I feel like it was emphasized a little much.  Specifically, the point is made that Ben’s mother didn’t need a husband but she needed a son.  While this is a nice, feel-good message for Ben (sort of, except for the fact that by this time both his father and mother are dead), it’s not exactly an idea I support.  In fact, it is the inclusion of this (preachy, it seems to me) sentiment that really got my dander up a bit–not the fact that they were unmarried!  While we certainly know unmarried couples who have children (both within and without our family), I would prefer to teach my children our beliefs about marriage rather than their learning them from a book.  Although Lulu could read this story, I think it would probably go over her head because of the format, and the marriage issue is something I’m not ready to address with her just yet.  This book is targeted at ages 9 and up, and I think that’s probably about right.

Despite these issues, I give this one a Highly Recommended because it really is a lovely story.  Just have a couple of hours free in which to read it, and be ready to discuss it with your children if they read it.

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8 thoughts on “Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick”

  1. Until just now, I didn’t even realize there wasn’t chapters!! I can’t believe I didn’t notice that!
    I completely agree about the marriage issue. I disliked that the author went about the issue the way he did. I hate to admit that until you mentioned it, though, I had forgotten about it.
    And when you said that Rose’s story was deafeningly quiet……perfect! It really WAS like being in a silent film! 🙂

  2. I’ve seen this title — a great title that appeals to me — but I had no sense at all about what the book was about. I haven’t read any Brian Selznick, and though this sounds good I get the impression from your review that maybe Hugo Cabret might be a better place to start. Putting it on my list!

  3. I appreciate you taking the time to explain the things you DIDN’T like about it. I heard so many lovely things about Hugo that I eventually picked it up only to discover that it’s a graphic novel and those just don’t hold any appeal to me. So then this book comes out and everyone is raving about it and I start to think maybe I was too hasty. I was considering giving in and picking this one up but the reasons you listed as having it bother you would bother me a lot. So I’ll skip it in good conscious.

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