I had the pleasure of attending the NEIBA trade show NECBA children’s author dinner last Wednesday (Oct. 12, 2011), where Brian Selznick explained what he was trying to do in his newest book, Wonderstruck. As you may remember, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, his previous middle grade novel, won the Caldecott Award, for a novel told in both pictures and text – you could not read one without the other, for together, they made the complete story. In Wonderstruck, Mr. Selznick wanted to stick with that format but play with the intent, so that instead of the film still-like images enhancing the same story, they tell a different person’s story than that of the text. Ben Wilson’s story in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977 is told via text, while Rose’s story from Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927 is told through images. The stories build up suspense for each other until one fateful moment, 3/4 of the way through the book, they collide beautifully.
This structure is particularly brilliant because the main characters in Wonderstruck are partially or fully deaf, and in Rose’s story, in 1927, the movie world is about to be completely changed with the invention of “talking pictures”. Whereas before, deaf and hearing people could enjoy films together, talking pictures changes all that. I love the underlying film stories in both Mr. Selznick’s works, and the themes of independence vs. family, adventure vs. security, past meeting present.
Ben’s mother has recently died, and he’s having a tough time adjusting to life with his aunt, uncle, and 2 cousins, even though their house is right next door to his old house on Gunflint Lake. One night, Ben sneaks into his own house and decides to search through his mother’s things for any message she might have left him. When Ben finds a locket, a book, and a postcard that might give him clues as to who his father is, he decides to try contacting him. Using a phone. In the middle of a storm. When lightening strikes.
Rose is a little deaf girl living in a large house in New Jersey, overlooking Manhattan. Lonely, unable to communicate via either sign language or lip reading, she runs away to find her mother in the city.
Their stories collide when Ben also runs away to find his father in the city. Ben ends up at the American Museum of Natural History, where he makes a friend in Jamie, whose father works at the museum and from whom Jamie has swiped some keys. The boys explore the museum, E.L. Konigsburg-style (if you don’t know what I’m referring to, check out Newbery Medal-winning From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), and Ben ends up sleeping in an old Cabinet of Wonders-turned-storage room. After a few dead ends during the hunt for his father, Ben meets Rose, now much older, who tells him her own story while explaining to Ben who his father is, where Ben comes from, and that though his mother died, Ben is not without family and friends in the world. Masterfully woven together, Wonderstruck lives up to the promise of greatness from every Brian Selznick work.
Oh, and one last thing – be prepared to have the line “Ground control to Major Tom” drift through your head for days after reading this.