Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Wonderstruck

by Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press, 2011, 637 pages

My wife was busy with some work on her laptop last night, and while I tried to restrain myself, I had to keep interrupting her to show her just how amazing this book is. It is a piece of art!

Wonderstruck could be described as part novel, part silent film. There are two stories, one in 1927, the other taking place 50 years later. Both are about children heading to New York. The action switches back and forth between the two, with the little girl's story - from 1927 - told entirely in pictures, and the boy's story told more conventionally with short "chapters." But because both children are heading to the same city, and visiting the same places, even though the action is separated by 50 years, the pictures in her story also show us what he is seeing. So there is a near seamless transition from the one story line to the other - it had me shaking my head at author Brian Selznick's creative brilliance!

I think I may be getting ahead of myself. Let's start again. This is a children's book, aimed at pre-teens, though I think an adult will appreciate it on a whole different level. It is huge - more than 600 pages thick - but only about a quarter of those have text, so it isn't the intimidating tome it looks.

Wonderstruck is about Ben and Rose. Ben lives in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977, with his aunt and uncle, because his mother has just died. He never knew his father, and because any questions he raised would make his mother sad, he stopped asking. She never even told him his name. But after his mother's death Ben discovers what may be some clues to who his father is, and those clues point him to New York. After an accident leaves him temporarily deaf Ben decides he has to go to the big city to find his father.

Rose is a girl living in 1927, just outside of New York.  She can see the lights of the big city from the window in her room. She collects newspaper clippings about a famous actress, and runs away to New York when she learns the actress is starring in a play in the city.

I was soon wishing these two didn't live decades apart - I wanted them to meet, and help each other. And of course that is what eventually happens as the two story lines merge into one.

Cautions 

There are a few brief references to evolution, and God is entirely ignored. Ben's mother's attitude towards marriage is mentioned briefly, but its selfishness is not noted (she did not want to be married, though she did want a child). The story's worldview is hard to sum up, but includes the idea that we can find our "completeness"- we can find some sense of meaning in the world - by finding our roots. In other words, family or a form of ancestor/descendant worship have been inserted in the place of God. So, like a lot of secular books for children, this would be a good one for parents to discuss with their children. 

Conclusion 

However, don't make too much of these cautions - this book is far less problematic than most preteen fiction. And it is far more beautiful. The author has seamlessly meshed two story lines, set 50 years apart. By telling one story in wordless pictures, he gives us a glimpse into what it might be like to be deaf, and by contrasting the 1920s with the 1970s he also creates a sense of timelessness - so many things might change in 50 years but people remain the same. It is simply stunning what Selznick has accomplished. It is a work that will be enjoyed by children, and appreciated by anyone, young or old, who enjoys great art.

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