Hype. What’s the point? A publisher believes that a book is going to be big so they crank up the old hype machine and do everything in their power to draw attention to it long before its publication date. That’s what they did for Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck and I was sad to see it. As far as I was concerned, Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret was too tough an act to follow. Here you had a book that managed to get hundreds of librarians across the nation of America to redefine in their own minds the very definition of “picture book”. Cabret was remarkable because it combined words and pictures in a manner most closely resembling a film. Indeed the whole plot of the book revolved around filmmaking so what would be the point of writing another book in the same vein? If Cabret credits its success in part to its originality, doesn’t that give his Wonderstruck a handicap right from the start? You’d think so, but you might also forget something about Cabret. While the art was spectacular and the plotting just fine, the writing was merely a-okay. By no means a detriment to the book, mind you. Just okay. And maybe that’s partly why Wonderstruck works as well as it does. The art is just as beautiful as Cabret‘s, the plotting superior, and the writing not just good, but fantastic. Where Cabret wowed readers with spectacle, Wonderstruck hits ‘em where it hurts. Right in the heart. For once, we’re dealing with a book that is actually worth its own hype.
Ben: Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, June 1977. Rose: Hoboken, New Jersey, October 1927. Ben’s Story – written: Newly orphaned when his mother dies, Ben comes to believe that he has a father, hitherto unknown, living in New York City. When an accident involving a telephone and a bolt of lightning renders him deaf, he sets out for the big city in search of clues to who his father really is. Rose’s Story – seen almost solely in pictures: A seeming prisoner in her own home, Rose too sets out for New York City to see the actress Lillian Mayhew for reasons of her own. The two children both end up in The American Museum of Natural History and both discover something there that will help to give them what they need to solve their own problems. And in that discovery, they will find one another.
I’ll just state right here and now that you could probably tell from the opening paragraph of this review that it’s extraordinarily difficult to talk about Wonderstruck without invoking Hugo Cabret in the same breath. This is mostly because of the unique written/image-driven style Selznick utilizes in both of these books. It’s not an unheard of technique, alternating written passages with visual ones, but it’s rarely done this well. What strikes me as significant, though, is that the style is chosen for a reason. In Hugo Cabret the focus was on the old original silent films. As a result, the images are shown as if you’re watching a silent movie, with text appearing between the illustrated sequences. Wonderstruck has a different motivation, if a seemingly similar set-up. Here the illustrated sequences are for a story separate from the text though they eventually blend with that story. There is a brief glimpse of a silent film here, but the real reason for the silent illustrated sections is because much of the story deals with people who are deaf or are becoming deaf. Visual storytelling (much preferred by Rose in the form of silent films) puts you in the protagonists’ shoes.
It’ll also break your heart. The text, as I say, is incredibly strong here but Selznick knows how to use art to get to your core. There’s a moment when a character writes “I miss you momma” followed by a look of simple longing that will ensnare both adult and child reader alike. There’s shock in that moment but also true storytelling. In fact, there are always clues in Selznick’s images that tell you a great deal about what’s really going on. Look at Rose’s mother’s dressing room and tell me if you can find a single photograph, in the midst of so many, of her only daughter. Later the character of Walter is seen in his apartment, a childhood picture of him and Rose sitting prominently on his shelf. Careful readings are rewarded with significant details (the sneaky Where’s Waldo-esque capers of similarly striped shirted Jamie is worth the price of admission alone).
Selznick takes a risk telling two tales in two different styles, of course. The fear is that when one is tense and fast-paced and the other leisurely that the momentum of one will slow down thanks to the other. Yet the man clearly knows what he is doing. Exciting sequences are paired with exciting sequences. Chase with chase, escape with escape. Selznick knows how to engage you simultaneously in two tales at once so that flipping between them two is never a chore. Nor (almost more impressively) do you ever forget what was happening in one story while another was going on. I’m sure that there will be some kids who “read” the book entirely through the pictures, but even if they do they’re going to have to double back and read the text to find out what happens to Rose.
Selznick’s storytelling style cannot tell a tale without also working in a mad variety of variegated elements. Here he pulls together a wolf exhibit, the history of The American Museum of Natural History, deaf culture, lightning, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and more. So while his greatest strength is probably his art, a close second would have to be his ability to link seemingly disparate facts into a seamless whole. It’s like writing poetry more than anything else. Connections are drawn so that you come to think of them naturally coming together.
Thinking about it, Wonderstruck‘s closest kin isn’t Hugo Cabret after all. It’s Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. In both cases a book uses visual clues to put the reader in the hero’s shoes. Where in The Arrival everything is as strange to the reader as it is to the immigrant hero, here we must learn to rely on our eyes to suss out a story told through visual elements. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I think that Wonderstruck is better than Cabret and it’s for the same reason that I’d pair this with The Arrival: It draws an emotional response from the reader. You care about both Rose and Ben. You want them to find what they are looking for; in Rose’s own words, to belong somewhere. Books that can elicit real emotions from the readers are the ones that remain in their memories long after the books are gone. Selznick could easily have duplicated the success of Cabret and trotted out something similar and paltry and it would still have been hyped within an inch of its life by his publisher. Instead, he took a chance and tried something new and different. The gamble, if that’s even what it was, paid off and we’re the ones who win. Wonderstruck lives up to its name. For everyone. Everywhere.
On shelves September 13th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Video: Brian Selznick talks about the book.