Brian Selznick’s “Wonderstruck”

Graphic novel even more impressive than his “Hugo Cabret” (from the San Diego Union Tribune)

By Brian Selznick; illustrated by Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press; 640 pages; $29.99 (Hardcover)
Ages 9 and up.

In promotional material, Brian Selznick explains that he “divides his time between Brooklyn and San Diego”; indeed, part of the year he lives in the La Jolla and he has illustrated prize-winning picture books by noted Cardiff author Pam Muñoz Ryan. We have, then, an occasion to boast: “Local Author Does Good.” In 2008, Selznick published his groundbreaking visual narrative “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” which went on to win the Caldecott Medal, the top prize in illustrated children’s books, and the story will soon appear as a movie directed by Martin Scorcese [see below]. Plaudits are also likely to accompany his newest offering, “Wonderstruck.”

Like the earlier book, “Wonderstruck” might seem daunting at first to the would-be reader since in size and heft it resembles “War and Peace.” Not to worry. What is conspicuous about both tomes is Selznick’s use of the visual and, in this case, among the new book’s 640 pages are more than 400 pencil drawings. This new book differs, however, in the way Selznick employs the visual.

While “Hugo Cabret” told its story by alternating between text and the pictorial equivalent of a film’s story boards, “Wonderstruck” tells two separate tales in the two mediums. The story told in words is set in 1977 and recounts how Ben leaves Gunflint, Minnesota, and travels to New York City to find his missing father. The story told in pictures is set in 1927 and recounts how Rose travels from Hoboken, New Jersey, to New York to track down her absent mother. As Selznick moves back and forth between the two, these parallel mystery stories begin to echo each other until they finally intersect in a surprising moment of synchronicity too touching to spoil by divulging here.

As if Selznick didn’t have enough in the air while juggling these twin stories, he adds two more features which make “Wonderstruck” dazzling. Much of the book takes place in New York’s American Museum of Natural History where Ben hides and sleeps, and we learn much about its history and its famous wolf diorama. In granting us this “backstage pass,” Selznick openly acknowledges that beloved children’s classic which first introduced the idea of kids secretly overnighting at that museum: E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler.”

The other complexity that Selznick adds is that Ben and Rose are deaf; and both learn, at different times, to sign and read lips, “feel” music and find a community among others who are hearing impaired. Indeed, the book’s special format–alternating between text and “silent” pictures-seems singularly apropos to this topic. Finally, in its sensitive exploration of perceptual alternatives, this may be the first young adult novel to take a page from cognitive science and the neurologist Oliver Sacks.

Intended for adolescents, Selznick’s book is written with perfect pitch. His vision of the moody young, cut off from parents and seeking new ways of belonging, is situated within Ben’s 1970’s boyworld (fishing rod, rifle, slingshots, arrows) and Rose’s 1930’s girlworld (scrapbooks of stage and screen starlets, miniature cities constructed like dollhouses). Moreover, the deafness of the book’s young characters serves as a symbol for that pervasive feeling of alienation (as well as a sense of empowerment in separate communities) which often accompanies adolescence-and, Selznick has added, the discovery of gay identity. Here is the territory of “Edward Scissorhands,” “Weetzie Bat,” and the Hardy Boys.

Wonderstruck. By Brian Selznick; illustrated by Brian Selznick.

In “Hugo Cabret,” Selznick celebrated Paris in the era of silent films and mechanical clockworks. In “Wonderstruck,” he turns to a span of time in New York of automats and typewriters. We might now hope that he is closing in on his new home and that we can soon expect, perhaps, a work set amongst the rococo flourishes and expo architecture of Balboa Park or the Oz-like extravagances of the Hotel Del, a book that might make use of, say, the Victorian paper theater collections at UCSD or Edward Gorey’s secret library at SDSU. That would give new meaning to the headline applicable to this book: “Local Author Does Good.”

This essay originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune (September 25, 2011). Scorcese’s movie “Hugo” appeared in November 2011.

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