Brian Selznick’s newest title, Wonderstruck, to be released by Scholastic in September, is stylistically similar to his groundbreaking 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The story is told in the same form in which Hugo was told—that is, a hybrid of picture book, novel and graphic novel. For that reason, I admit to putting the book toward the bottom of my to-be-read stack, but I hope others don’t do the same. That’s because this story—with two separate story lines told in two different ways (one in pictures and one in words) until they eventually merge—is a wonder.
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I hesitate to give away plot spoilers, but suffice it to say that there’ s a boy named Ben, circa 1977, whose story is primarily told in words and who longs to learn more about his father, while at the same time grieving over the loss of his mother. And there’ s a girl named Rose, a child approximately 50 years earlier, whom readers ultimately learn is profoundly deaf through a story told primarily in pictures. When Ben, already deaf in one ear, is struck by lightning while on the phone, he too loses all his hearing. And, while Ben longs to find his father, Rose longs to connect with her mother, a silent film actress named Lillian Mayhew.
Their stories are woven together seamlessly until eventually they overlap years later in New York City. (Throw in a fascinating tribute to museums, as well as The Panorama at the Queens Museum of Art.) And it’s this first moment when Ben appears in the illustrations that is the most touching in the book, but I’ll let you find out why when you pick up a copy of this yourself.
While Hugo was beautifully crafted, Wonderstruck is even more so. I found myself lingering over the pencil drawings of young Rose in particular. This is some of Selznick’s most visually arresting work. Also as with Hugo, the book’s overall design and marriage of word and text are superb. There are many layers to this tale. This is storytelling rich with imagery.
I studied and worked for years as a sign-language interpreter (not to mention as a librarian at a school for the deaf), immersed in the world of deafness and American Sign Language. And Selznick really did his homework here bringing us the story of a woman, deaf all her life, which resonates with honesty. This isn’t the novel of someone who barely scratched the surface of his research on what is known as Deaf Culture. As explained in the book’s closing acknowledgements, he jumped headlong into the world of the Deaf community to immerse himself and learn its many facets. But then I didn’t need to read the acknowledgements to know that. His respect for and understanding of Deaf Culture shines in this novel.
But, best of all, this is a story in which Selznick’s groundbreaking format is even more fitting. Since American Sign Language is a complex visual language (and brilliant, I might add, though I’m a bit biased here), uniquely structured to meet the needs of the eyes, it is fitting that in the hands of Selznick we have someone who creates such sophisticated and eloquent wordless spreads. That may be my favorite overlap of all in this unforgettable novel.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.