The 2008 Caldecott Committee made a bold decision in selecting Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret as its Medal winner. A 544-page novel as best picture book? It did have 158 illustrations central to the telling of the story, and the committee decided it was a new form of picture book.
Now, Selznick is back with Wonderstruck, an even bigger novel. As in Hugo Cabret, artwork tells much of the story, two independent threads of visual and prose narrative weaving in and out, eventually coming together as the protagonists meet and their stories join. Young Ben’s prose narrative begins in 1977, at Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, and young Rose’s visual narrative begins in 1927, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Both characters yearn for a better life, trying to find their places in the world. Ben’s mother has died, and his journey takes him to New York City in search of the father he never knew. Rose is deaf and her parents are protective, but she, too, is lured by the big city.
Selznick’s pencil drawings perfectly capture Rose’s heartbreakingly earnest expressions, and a full-page spread evokes in careful detail the “cabinets of wonders,” early museum displays of objects that evoke the wonders of the world. By the end of the novel, Ben wonders if we’re not all collectors of objects, moments and experiences, “making our own cabinet of wonders” during our lives. This becomes the novel’s theme: being open to the wonders of the world.
Not everyone is open to being wonderstruck, but Ben and Rose are; as they say (in a line borrowed from Oscar Wilde), “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”