Spontaneous Reads: Wonderstruck

Illustration by Brian Selznick, via the website of the Queens Museum.

On the incredibly enthusiastic recommendation of my mother and ten-year-old sister (my mom actually surprised me by sending me a copy of the book–that’s how much she wanted me to read it), I picked up Wonderstruck. I was not familiar with Brian Selznick’s previous novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, but I will definitely be reading it now. This book was an absolute treat, and I finished the whole (rather extensive) book in two days–less than two if you consider that I was working/sleeping for much of that time.

Wonderstruck tells the two parallel stories of Rose, a young deaf girl in 1927 who runs away from her home in Hoboken to New York City, and in 1977, of Ben, a young boy from Gunflint, Minnesota who was born deaf in one ear and then loses hearing in his other ear after being indirectly hit by lightning in a rainstorm. After his mother’s death, Ben runs away to New York to find the father he’s never known. And although the two stories are separated by 50 years, they run surprisingly parallel throughout the novel, until they eventually–and beautifully–connect.

Selznick excels on so many levels: his pencil drawings are vivid and richly detailed, and are have an incredible nuance with light that I would not have expected from pencil drawings. He also has a very cinematic way of leading you through the visual part of his stories–he uses close-ups particularly well.

His writing is also fantastic–what a great vocabulary to find in a kid’s book! Selznick’s characters are full realized, three-dimensional people and he balances tough themes (a parent’s death, an unknown parent, loneliness, isolation, an inability to communicate) with a general sense of hope and well-bring. The children in both stories have their fair share of problems and need to both grow a lot throughout the story, but Selznick is able to capture these transformations without trauma. I didn’t spend the whole book worried that something terrible was going to happen to both of these kids on their own in New York City, without money or friends, or really any way of communicating with most people. I knew that they were going to be okay–that everything was going to turn out for the best. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need from a book. Enough reality and seriousness so that it isn’t total fluff, but balanced with a general feeling of ease and enjoyment. These kids are, after all, both on huge adventures.

Illustration by Brian Selznick, via the website of the Queens Museum.

The other great thing about Wonderstruck is all the great references and intricate details. Selznick obviously did extensive research (his acknowledgments and partial bibliography in the back are impressive) and he’s not only folded in accurate portrayals of things like the Museum of Natural History in both 1927 and 1977, but also of the blackout in 1977, and tons of factoids about Deaf culture, wonder cabinets, and more. He’s got lines from “Space Oddity” by David Bowie all over in the first part of Ben’s story (loved that) and also–apparently–makes a lot of references to E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (I haven’t read that book, but my sister is reading it right now in her 5th grade class and it is definitely on my list now.)

Selznick also makes me want to discover and rediscover parts of New York now. I want to go back and see all the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History and I finally want to get out to Queens and see the Panorama. And there’s a high commendation: a book that makes a jaded New Yorker get excited all over again about all the wonders there are in her city.

***

It bears noting that an exhibition of Brian Selznick’s drawings from the book is ongoing at the Queens Museum until January: “Wonderstruck in the Panorama: Drawings by Brian Selznick.”

Also, in October, the website for the book will feature “a collection of brilliant essays written just for you by experts, illuminating the world of Wonderstruck.” Topics will include essays on New York in 1977, Deaf history and culture, the transition from silent to sound film, the inspirational source material of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and a piece on Hoboken by none other than David Levithan. Nice to see a book website that adds to the content in such a useful, interesting way.

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