Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal


Improbably, Brian Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, and now his latest novel in words and pictures should give the Newbery and Caldecott committees fits all over again.  Our sister blog, Calling Caldecott discussed this book from their angle here, and we had a brief preliminary discussion of its Newbery chances here.

Since that time we’ve discussed both I BROKE MY TRUNK! and THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE which also prominently feature words and pictures.  WONDERSTRUCK will not face one prejudice that those books will, and that is the word count.  There’s plenty of text here (enough to find ample evidence of distinguished qualities), but unlike those books (where the pictures illustrate the text), here the pictures take over portions of the story from the text.  There are three parts to the book, and in the first two the textual and visual storylines are completely independent, but they converge in the third part where the story is told in alternating mediums (as it was in THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET).

As I said the last time that we had this discussion, I see nothing in the criteria that prevent this kind of a story from being recognized, provided that distinguished features for which it is to be recognized are found in the text.  The illustrations themselves may be distinguished, may complement and extend the distinguished textual qualities, but that is of no consequence to the Newbery committee.  That said, here’s what I find distinguished in the text.


After AMELIA LOST, this is the book that rises the most for me in terms of plot.  Each chapter (chapter being defined here as a continuous section of words or pictures) ends with a cliffhanger.  Here are the first five.

The mysterious quote from his mom’s bulletin board echoed again in his mind.  We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

He grabbed the red flashlight and slipped silently out of his cousins’ house.

Ben thought about the shooting star and the impossible wish he’d made.  With a trembling hand, he slowly pushed open the door.

“Don’t stay long, okay?  A storm is coming.”

Maybe it was a museum box.  Maybe he was making a museum about Gunflint Lake.

Each concluding line teases the audience to keep reading.  There are visual chapters with an entirely different storyline in between these textual ones, but these cliffhangers make the reader want to immediately return to the text.  But these are little mysteries, the larger one is that of Ben’s father. If there are some contrivances in the plot, they are no worse than OKAY FOR NOW, THE PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE–or THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER which this book clearly pays homage to.  Since the contrivances don’t bother me, and since this post is long enough, I’ll let others expand on this in the comments.

Another strength of the plot is the pacing, which comes from the contrast between the different mediums.  The first textual chapter is 12 pages long, the subsequent visual chapter is 26 pages long, but 13 page spreads.  In the time that it takes to read the first page of text the reader can read the entire visual chapter.  This creates a unique pacing that, for me, most closely resembles that of a ballroom dance (quick, quick, slow).  Of course, here it would be more like this: slow, quick, quick, quick, quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, quick, quick, quick.  It gives children, particularly reluctant or struggling readers, a wonderful sense of accomplishment.


The author Jane Kurtz once told me that she liked to include details about a setting that would only be known to a native of the region, things that firmly ground the story in a particular time and place beyond the shadow of a doubt.  I find such a wonderful detail about Ben’s characterization on the very first page.

“What?” Ben asked.

“What?  What? Can’t you hear me?  Are you deaf?”

Robby, along with practically everyone else on Gunflint Lake, knew that Ben had been born deaf in one ear, but he still thought it was funny to ask Ben this all the time, even in the middle of the night.

I have a congenital hearing loss (moderate to severe) and have worn hearing aids in both ears since the age of two.  I’m also fluent in American Sign Language, extremely familiar with deaf culture, and have many deaf and hard of hearing friends and acquaintances.  I’m the “native” that would pick up on this telling detail that might slide right past other readers.  You see, if I had this exchange one time during my childhood–and I did have this exchange, almost verbatim–I had it hundreds of times.  It was always annoying and irksome–and never funny.  I never got the humor.  I suppose if I could go back in time to the very first instance I might find it funny, but any joke repeated over and over and over again loses steam.  These kind of jokes about deafness pop up fairly regularly in popular culture.  There’s a humorous bit about Miss Volker’s hearing aids in DEAD END IN NORVELT, in fact.   I don’t find the jokes offensive, but I don’t find them funny either.  You can see Selznick touched a bit of a nerve–and on the very first page, no less–but it’s clear to me from this one detail that he’s done his homework.


The textual narrative is set in the 1977, but the setting feels contemporary and slightly generic (although not completely generic as the lyrics to “Space Oddity” by David Bowie are worked into the story).  As far as the place, I definitely found both Gunflint Lake and New York City (and the museum, in particular) to be described in sufficient detail to allow me to paint vivid mental pictures.  As with THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE, if we could consider text and pictures together it would rank in the most distinguished category, but since we can only consider the text, the setting may still be distinguished, but not in an elite kind of way.


Selznick’s prose style is clear, fluid, and effortless.  I’m not necessarily knocked-out by his sentence level writing, but I think the cumulative effect of the prose is distinguished.  I wanted to quote his description of watching the northern lights, but I can’t seem to find it.  Here’s the last two paragraphs of the book instead.

Thinking about all the connections that led him here, Ben marveled at how everything could be traced, like the path on a treasure map, from a book, a turtle, and a cabinet in an old exhibition, to Walter to Rose to Danny to Elaine and then, finally, to Ben himself.

And of course Ben would never have discovered the path in the first place if it weren’t for Jamie.  The world was full of wonders.


This book has lots of familiar elements, from genre (mystery, historical fiction) to motifs (dead mother, journey/quest) that are done well, but for me what sets this book apart is its treatment of deafness although I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as the main theme.  As with setting, if I could include the words and pictures then I would rank this as most distinguished in terms of theme.  To wit, compare and contrast the early scenes in the very visual atmosphere of the museum.  First, we get a textual description of how Ben perceives the world with his hearing loss.  Then, we get a visual description of how Rose perceives the world with hers.  I could tease out some really interesting observations here, but I’m not going to because I believe that we must explore this only in the text.  I think it’s still there, and still distinguished, just not to the same level.


All things considered, I find that the textual parts of WONDERSTRUCK achieve the level of most distinguished in terms of plot.  If I could also consider the pictures, I could argue the same for setting and theme, but even so, I still find them distinguished–and I find character and style distinguished in the text as well.  So I feel like plot is where this book separates itself from the pack.  The text is still distinguished in the other elements–character, setting, style, theme–but it doesn’t distance itself from the competition in the same way.  So I find myself also relying on my decathlon argument a bit here (i.e. that we can holistically consider a book most distinguished even if few–or none–of its constituent parts are).  OKAY FOR NOW, A MONSTER CALLS, and PENDERWICKS are currently my highest rated novels, but this one is in that next group, and as I mentioned I can easily be convinced to go one way or another when it comes to the middle grade fiction.  My loyalty is still up for grabs.

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. You are so thorough in this examination. Thank you for taking me through the reasoning of the awards. It’s only a few weeks away & we’ll soon know, & perhaps not understand, the winners. Perhaps we’ll be Wonderstruck!

  2. Fighting words, I know, but: I thought the text of this book so thoroughly mediocre that I hardly know what to say about it. But I thought the plot was the least-distinguished thing about it. The structure you describe as being distinguished is pretty much exactly that used in The Da Vinci Code. Now, I don’t want to take that comparison too far, and I think this is better than The Da Vinci Code, but that structure in and of itself isn’t a selling point to me. In fact, I think it can be a way to “fake” distinguished plot development. If you’re interested in pursuing it, I’d like to hear more about how you think this is no more contrived than From the Mixed-Up Files, which I don’t find contrived at all, and in which I don’t find plot holes. Well, there is one thing I’ve always thought was unnecessary–the coincidence about Mrs. Frankweiler’s lawyer being the children’s grandfather. But in the central story, no. The premise of kids being able to run away and stay in the museum is fantastic (in the unbelievable sense), but once we accept that that’s the premise of the book, everything follows from that.

    Particularly once Ben gets to New York, I think this book falls off its rails. Mixed-Up Files has plenty of discussion of finding one’s way around New York, and it’s also a place they’re already somewhat familiar with, and also it’s not that weird for kids to take a short commuter train. It didn’t make sense to me, on the other hand, that Ben was able to get all the way to New York (and he’d been in the hospital) and then navigate fairly easily. The general storyline about his new friend didn’t ever seem real to me, the way kids would really act, and Jamie’s character in particular seemed really flat. And then the long, long part where the story is supposedly being written down for Ben to read? I kept flipping back to make sure that was really what was supposed to be happening there.

    It also didn’t seem consistent with Ben’s mother’s character, as she was described, that she didn’t tell either Ben’s father or his grandparents about him. Even when she was introducing Ben to them. Why would she act like that? Ans: because if she’d told them, the book wouldn’t have had any plot. He would have been all “hey can I go stay with my grandparents” and everyone would have said “sure”. Then there’s no mystery and no adventure around New York.

    It’s a cool book, but I don’t think its literary qualities bring it to the top.

  3. Wendy, thanks for articulating pretty much everything I was going to say about the book! I was hooked while reading it, but when I sat back to think about it, a bunch of the things you mentioned irritated me – especially your last point about Ben’s mother.

  4. Nina Lindsay says:

    In a discussion in the comments on this book over at Calling Caldecott, Roger said: “Well, I was on the committee that decided Hugo Cabret was a picture book and I would still argue that it is one. The problem with the “know it when I see it” approach to things is that it allows people to stay stuck in their own criteria rather than having to align themselves to an exterior standard. This of course does not mean they will agree, but that the discussion will have some parameters.”

    This is a title that really challenges us re criteria. If I look for the usual kind of craft in the text that we find in other distinguished titles… this doesn’t have very exciting sentence-level…even paragraph-level prose. It’s not subtle, and a little flat. If I look for the usual types of arcs of character, plot… this does not ring out “distinguished.” If we pick out each element of the Newbery criteria, select just that part of this book in its text and compare it to other contenders, this doesn’t rise to the top. And yet, it seems to generate a kind of energy and effect in its reading …and through its text… that no other book does, and it’s this energy that feels distinguished. I think we have to, for a moment, forget about the ways we apply the criteria to other books, turn off the “know it when I see it” approach and think about what makes this piece of literature stand out.

    The first thing I pick up on rereading this is how much I enjoy the interlocking stories…the way that Selznick has layered and connected his two narratives. This structure and pacing provide the narrative and emotional tension that the base words themselves may lack…and certainly the *structure* of the text can be considered. Secondly, I start to notice how much Selznick focuses on the visual within his textual narrative, and especially appreciate the descriptions of New York City on Ben’s arrival. Next, I notice how the structure, along with the visual narrative, create a sense of a fragmented scenery, and how THIS (not Ben’s deafness, or any plot piece) becomes the theme of the story: this is a story about curation. How things holds memories and thus tell stories. How individual and distant stars create a panorama. What happens when you are a part of the scenery.

    Selznick seeds his theme throughout his text in different ways. He sets it up when Ben first reads from Wonderstuck, p.98 “Simply choosing how to display your things, deciding what pictures to hang where, and in which order your books belong, places you in the same category as a museum curator.” There’s that wonderful moment later when he realizes that he’s in the cabinet of wonders, and notice how much Selznick’s very straightforward prose is doing here: p.463 “He was standing inside his father’s book.” And finally, there are all the pieces of his father, literally, in Rose’s Panaroma.

    Selznick clearly appreciates puzzles, and treasures, and I’m sure it could take a thesis to uncover everything he’s tucked in here. This time through I was struck on page 580 by the way Ben notes the date as being the day before his birthday. What was the significance, I wondered, because everything in this book seems to have one. Bastille Day? Nah, I had another suspicion, which I was able to quickly confirm thanks to Wikipedia….Selznick gave Ben his own birthday. Doesn’t add anything to the story. But it adds to the magic for the reader who may guess and discover.

    Lots of other gems in here… on p.509 , as the narratives merge, Ben reads a word Rose has written: “Ben?” Text ends, and the next page is Ben’s face. This is the first time we get to see him, because she has recognized him…and it has the same marvelous effect as when Schmidt finally lets Doug acknowledge his brother’s name to the reader. The effect here, of course, is achieved both through word and picture, but again I’m going to argue that the structure and pacing of the text should be considered.

    So, back to the criteria… I see here that appropriateness of style, and interpretation of theme or concept, are certainly standout elements. And if we are willing to think of plot and character in a different way…not as things delivered in an arc, but rather as scenery..diorama…panorama… assembled of individual elements and layered and connected so that there is a pattern achieved, a refrain… Wonderstruck does something different with its character and plot than our other novels. It’s as if they are in service to the whole “cabinet of wonders” of the book…the book itself, the images and ideas that the words (and pictures) create become objects for the reader to curate…the reader creates the panorama, and is in it.

    Still not sure how to compare, or weigh this, to the others on our list. But it’s got to be discussed…and put the criteria to the test.

  5. Wendy, I seriously want to hug you right now. I finally got around to reading Wonderstuck after hearing so many great things. Which I expected because the Invention of Hugo was amazing. But for me Wonderstuck not so much. Ben’s part of the novel is set in 1977. I believe he’s 12 yrs old making 65 his birth year, yet there’s no mention of cruel whispers about him having a single mother (who was never married) or who or where the father was. When Ben does make it to New York there were too many happy concidences.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Well, it looks like we’re back online after yet *another* SLJ blog meltdown . . .

    I never read THE DA VINCI CODE; I did see the movie, but too long ago to recall the plot, let alone how it unfolded. I also don’t want to belabor the MIXED UP FILES comparison either, but the premise of children running away and hiding out in a museum is an improbable one, regardless of which book it appears in. It’s certainly longer to take a bus from Minnesota to NYC than a commuter train from Connecticut, but is it harder? To his credit, Selznick doesn’t dwell on the details in an effort to convince us, doesn’t give us the scene where Ben escapes the hospital, goes to the bus station, arrives at Grand Central, etc. Less is more, and it allows the reader to fill in the details, something Rebecca Stead did remarkably well in WHEN YOU REACH ME, another don’t-think-about-it-too-hard-or-it-all-falls-apart plot.

    The most improbable coincidence, however, is when Ben is struck by lightning through the telephone (it’s what Selznick does to establish his own fantastical tone that anything can happen). Once I swallowed that whopper early in the novel, everything else seemed plausible in comparison. If, ultimately, we judge this too to be too much coincidence, then so be it, but the logical and natural conclusion is that we take all of the plot-problem books off the table (OKAY FOR NOW, THE PENDERWICKS, and MAY AMELIA) leaving a clear path to the Medal for AMELIA LOST. Okay . . . that’s a bit of hyperbole as I don’t think the plotting concerns of PENDERWICKS and MAY AMELIA are in the same league as OKAY FOR NOW and WONDERSTRUCK.

    In my own personal experience, I have seen the language barrier make strangers of family. When I taught the deaf and hard of hearing class a couple years ago, for example, we had the mother of one of our students in for a parent-teacher conference. An offhand remark: “Does it really mean anything when he moves his hands around like that?” This was someone who lived with him every day for ten years, not a complete stranger that he had never met. Given the emotion of the day and the inadequacy of communication, it is absolutely plausible to me that a hearing person would not make a greater attempt at communication. But I do understand that my perspective colors my interpretation, and that most people will not be able to view the text through the lens of my experience.

    Ben and Rose are the main characters of the book. They are the most fully realized and their arc is the most fully developed. Since I feel like too much of Rose is conveyed in the pictures (all of young Rose, basically), I chose to focus on Ben. All of the secondary characters, including Jamie, seem flat relative to Ben and Rose, but we could say the same of most of the novels published this year (i.e. that the secondary characters are flat relative to the main ones). The friendship between the two boys unfolded as much as it could have given their communication problems and the relatively short time frame.

  7. I think many, many books of this year developed their secondary characters more powerfully. And in some other books secondary characters weren’t developed in depth; but here, Jamie’s character didn’t read “undeveloped” to me, it read “poorly developed”. This is something that you and Nina have both critiqued in other books of the year. Nina and I had a similar discussion about The Queen of Water, a book that spoke more to me than her, opposite of the case here. In that book it had been easy for me to wave away objections to flat secondary characters. It still is, but I value Nina’s more objective reading of it.

    What bothers me about Ben’s mother not telling his father and especially grandparents about him is that it creates false drama, because it doesn’t seem true to the character. If she had told them about him and then not made any effort to include them in Ben’s life, I could accept that as being related to the effect you mention above, of barriers between hearing and deaf people. But that she had Ben in front of them and didn’t say anything–I could not come up with a single plausible reason for this, especially not one that exists in the world of the book. Things like a lightning strike happen for no reason at all and I can certainly accept that. If the “what if” in this book was just “what if a partially deaf boy was struck by lightning and lost the rest of his hearing”, that’s not a problem. In Point Mouette, as we’ve discussed, the book rides on a central coincidence; the characters act in consistent ways in response. Even in May Amelia, which has plot issues I’ve discussed my problems with, the entire book doesn’t ride on something that doesn’t make sense to me.

    Now, with Okay For Now, I think the plot issues are probably more significant than in May Amelia or Point Mouette. I’m not one who was troubled by the father’s supposed quick turnaround, but others were. I’m still irritated about the baseball player and the Broadway show plot. But two things in that book’s favor, vs. this one: none of that is central to the main plot, and the rest of the book is particularly well-written.

    >>”It’s certainly longer to take a bus from Minnesota to NYC than a commuter train from Connecticut, but is it harder?”


    >> “To his credit, Selznick doesn’t dwell on the details in an effort to convince us, doesn’t give us the scene where Ben escapes the hospital, goes to the bus station, arrives at Grand Central, etc. Less is more, and it allows the reader to fill in the details”

    This suggests you think he did it better than Konigsberg. I’m generally a believer in “less is more”, as you probably know, but it only works if the outline given makes sense. A few more details might have made this improbability easier to swallow. It isn’t a case of “thinking too hard”. I was merrily reading along and was then extremely puzzled, wondering what I’d missed and how Ben could now be in New York. The feeling is more “pages missing” than “details lightly sketched because they aren’t an important part of the story”.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I wasn’t bothered by either THE PENDERWICKS or MAY AMELIA, although I understand why people have objected to both. In the former case, it’s one improbable plot event rather than a series of them. In the latter case, it’s unlikely, but not impossible, that so many things would befall a single family in that short of a time period. OKAY FOR NOW and WONDERSTRUCK both ask their audiences to suspend disbelief even more, but I think people are more willing to forgive the former simply because the characters are so great. The characters (main and secondary) are pretty great in PENDERWICKS and MAY AMELIA, too. I’ve never argued, however, that WONDERSTRUCK is distinguished because of its characters, aside from Ben and Rose.

    I strongly disagree that the mother’s actions are out of character. She was very secretive about the whole thing, not even telling Ben anything about his father. Rose’s own speculation that she didn’t need a husband to feel complete, but she did want a child, certainly places her ahead of her time. Today we wouldn’t think twice about this kind of woman, one who gets pregnant or adopts without being in a relationship, without strings attached. I also think you are too easily dismissing the language barrier; it’s really not uncommon at all for hearing people to make little or no attempt to communicate with deaf people, even when there is something important to be said. I’m sure the mother was full of her own grief, only had a few moments to offer her condolences to the mother, and couldn’t express something that big in a several minutes in such a loaded situation. So I think the mother’s actions are entirely within character. I think what you are arguing is that it doesn’t make sense from a common sense standpoint, that this is not how a mother would behave. However, I do think Selznick has laid the foundation for this particular mother to behave this particular way.

    There was a bus station that Ben could see from the hospital, and then the next thing we know he’s in New York City. I assumed that he bought a bus ticket, rode the bus to New York City, got off at Grand Central, and took another bus to the museum, although he could have walked (long, but not impossible) or taken a taxi (improbable given his hearing loss). The NY Times reviewer thought he had taken a flight, and that, too, is not impossible, but extremely unlikely especially given the bus station conveniently located next to the hospital. Again, perhaps my own experience of living in Manhattan and using the subway and bus system extensively, and knowing how easily accessible the maps are, has colored my reading of the text. I am grateful that Selznick did not include these scenes in the text because they are unnecessary and really wouldn’t have furthered any of the literary elements. I personally don’t think they would have made the plot more plausible. It would have made the book longer, and that’s my problem with the book obesity so prevalent today. Many authors would have written those scenes in excruciating, mind-numbing detail.

  9. Nina Lindsay says:

    Wendy, I didn’t have any issue with the mother keeping Ben to herself. In fact, I thought that part *was* developed..she was a very independent person, and was raising a child in a time when women’s rights were being redefined.

    In general, I share your issues with thin plot and character development. I’m still holding off on the judgementof calling “thin” ” bad” because it simply didn’t bother me as much in this book as it did in others. I think this book is trying to offer something else that doesn’t depend as much on this. (All the character coincidences in OKAY FOR NOW bothered me more than the ones here, for instance, because OFN depends on the genuineness of its characters more than anything else.). Trying to judge this as if it were intending to be a classic novel in structure cuts it short.

  10. “I think what you are arguing is that it doesn’t make sense from a common sense standpoint, that this is not how a mother would behave.”

    That’s actually the opposite of what I’m arguing. There are multiple reasons that I think this could have made sense. The book was not developed that way. The mother was secretive to an extent, yes, but that very secretiveness is what seems out of character compared to everything else we know about her.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    What are the other things we know about her that make her secretiveness seem unlikely?

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Another thing I found interesting on rereading is how much text there is in the pictures, whether it’s notes being written back and forth, the text of books and newspapers, silent film captions, storefront signs, and even fingerspelling (which is not American Sign Language but simply a manual representation of the alphabet).

  13. Wendy, Wow! Great posts. I’ve been away for a while . . .

    My general feelings of WONDERSTRUCK are similar to my feelings of HUGO CABRET. Great, groundbreaking format and design and idea. Very meh, mediocre plot and story.

    I know I’m in a huge minority, but I just wasn’t blown away by any of the story of HUGO CABRET. I feel like people were wowed by the concept and design.

    And personally, I think WONDERSTRUCK is even less a story than HUGO CABRET. I feel like Selznick is cashing in on his concept here. But that’s just me.

    I also, read this in the midst of my four day, family Christmas adventure. So my mind was several other places.

  14. Speaking of WHEN YOU REACH ME (Jonathan did) . . . this totally doesn’t fit this conversation but I had a question:

    I just finished reading this with my fifth graders and they loved it, but were frustrated in the end. Many could not understand why Marcus didn’t just travel back in time and stop himself from hitting Sal, scaring him in the first place, which is what led to Sal’s eventual death. I thought, wow, good question.

    Was this discussed here? Can anyone answer?

  15. Jonathan, if I’m able to get my hands on a copy of the book later this week, I’ll answer more specifically.

  16. Eric Carpenter says:

    Mr. H in response to your students question I’d say that Stead time travel story assumes that one can not change events by going back in time. Time travel fiction comes in two different veins. The most common is the “Back to the Future” type of time travel where traveling into the past can affectively rewrite the future. The other type (and the one Stead employees) assumes that there is only one timeline and that all events that happend in the past will always happen in the past and all events in the future will always happen in the future.
    Every event in the book has already happened (exactly as it does in the book) to the laughing man decades earlier which is why he is able to go back in time and follow Miranda’s directions. Miranda has already written the letter to Marcus when the story starts.
    So Marcus goes back and saves Sal because that is what he always does. None of the characters can do anything differently because all time occurs at the same time as all other time. (think of the ring analogy)

    Now have fun explaining to your 5th graders how freewill can still exist in light of this paradox!

  17. Ha! Thanks Eric.

  18. I admire all the careful arguments for this book, but I still feel I’m looking at it with one of my senses turned-off, trying to walk on one leg, or otherwise considering it in an incomplete way. Hard enough (as I wrote in another comment today) to have to turn-off all my previous knowledge about a book, author, prequels, etc when considering it for the Newbery, but even worse to have to not consider the book as a whole, as it was conceived and created. Still am unable to be convinced that is possible here. Or if so, that the incomplete part of the book we are considering is equal to or superior to others on the table here.

  19. Ha… just realized that missing sense could be hearing right? But in this case it is my appreciation of the visual aesthetic and how it makes this a whole story experience. By not discussing Rose’s story because you can’t something huge is missing for me here. Same problem I had last year with COUNTDOWN and before it HUGO CABRET. I want the Newbery criteria CHANGED so that these books can be recognized for all that they are, not part of what they are.

  20. Jonathan Hunt says:

    We had this conundrum the year that I served on the committee, too, and we actually recognized a book where half of the story was told in pictures and the other half in text. This book, HITLER YOUTH, was essentially fighting with one hand tied behind it’s back–and it still managed a Newbery Honor. It was very frustrating to not consider the pictures because they weren’t just pictures, they were primary sources (any analysis of HITLER YOUTH as a serious work of history would have discussed them at length), and they were carefully selected to not only tell a parallel story, but an independent one. So, if HITLER YOUTH can win a Newbery Honor for its text–which was just as much a part of its whole–then why not WONDERSTRUCK?

  21. Mark Flowers says:

    Jonathan – I of course agree with you that WONDERSTRUCK or I BROKE MY TRUNK can and should be considered, I completely agree with Monica: the Newbery criteria are hopelessly out of date for the types of children’s books that are being produced today. I’m not very familiar with the Caldecott criteria, but they seem to have a little more leeway in considering the text, but still are really awarding the book with the best illustrations, instead of the best picture book. So a great book like THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE could (theoretically) be eliminated from both discussions because 1) the text alone isn’t distinguished enough and 2) some other picture book has better illustrations, even if it has a much inferior text. This seems like a huge injustice.

    Getting back to Monica’s point about WONDERSTRUCK: why *should* WONDERSTRUCK or HITLER YOUTH have to fight with a hand tied behind its back. Let they have both hands in the fight.

  22. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I hasten to add that CRISS CROSS, WHITTINGTON, and SHOW WAY also featured significant undiscussable graphic features so you could argue that they, too, were arguably just as disadvantaged in the discussions, although probably less so in WHITTINGTON where they are just as incidental as they are in GOOD MASTERS!

    Changing the Newbery criteria would be very, very difficult, and given the fact that committees have wrestled with the present criteria and still manage occasionally to recognize books with significant graphic features makes me think it extremely unlikely. Monica’s lament sidesteps the fact that even if we could have considered both words and pictures for COUNTDOWN and/or HUGO CABRET it doesn’t necessarily mean that she herself or we, as a hypothetical committee, would have deemed them the most distinguished in their respective years.

  23. The reason I am able to forgive OKAY FOR NOW its improbabilities and not a book like WONDERSTRUCK (at least when discussing for the Newbery Medal), is because through his writing, Schmidt takes his time developing Doug as a character. Sure OKAY FOR NOW takes place in the 1970s, like much of WONDERSTRUCK, but I actually would argue that what people are missing from OKAY FOR NOW is that I’m not sure Schmidt actually ever meant for it to take place in our world. It’s a type of fiction where he’s altering certain events. I’m okay with that, because I believe in Doug because Schmidt gave him a voice. The improbabilities come later.

    In WONDERSTRUCK, the improbabilities come almost immediately. From the instant Ben looks at all the items in the room and magically determines that they must be leading him to New York. We don’t get to know Ben as a character before these leaps occur. Selznick just kind of expects us to suspend disbelief from the beginning. And that’s more because he trusts the format in which he’s telling his story.

    The fact that Ben just hops on a bus in Duluth, MN and rides to New York City, and then is able to just seamlessly find his way around New York, is kind of silly. Especially since he’s just recently lost the hearing in his other ear, making him fully deaf. The improbability that we’re speaking of in WONDERSTRUCK, feels cheap because it moves the plot along. That’s not the same as OKAY FOR NOW.

    If you pull out character development, setting, and plot (which the duel stories converging is not at all original), I don’t think you can make convincing arguments based on the text in terms of the Newbery. I think people are being wowed by the format, which I really don’t understand because after his work in HUGO CABRET, even the format isn’t entirely original anymore. Thanks to Selznick himself!

    I think the format is ingenious, but I’m not sure I liked HUGO CABRET or WONDERSTRUCK enough to fully endorse either title. I’ll keep reading his books, should he return to the format again, because it is engaging. I just feel like the story is being overhyped based on the format in which it’s told.

  24. Another nitpick, a geography thing, in the letter Ben finds from Daniel in the museum he mentions arriving in Minneapolis and then a 5 hour drive to Gunflint Lake. I live in Iowa and I’m pretty familiar with Minnesota. Based on my calculations, taking interstate 35 much of the way, at least through Duluth, that’s AT LEAST a 6 hour drive. How was Daniel making that trip in the 1920’s in 5 hours? Big deal, probably not. But in a way it reinforces my bigger concern, that more care went into creating the whole package of what this book was going to be (illustrations and all), and not enough time and careful thought went into the actual story it was telling.

    And to expand on what Wendy was saying earlier, about Ben traveling to New York, remember this was a kid who’s dream vacation was a trip to Duluth, MN. Which is 2-3 hours south of Gunflint Lake. That tells me this kid doesn’t get out much. So we are suddenly to imagine that hopping on a bus and traveling across the country, is something within the realm of possibility for this kid. I don’t buy it.

  25. When you begin to “read” Wonderstruck you believe Mr. Selznick is telling two stories and not one. The story of Ben and of Rose are clearly set at different times .Yet the relationship between these two stories only grows to reveal just how intertwined Ben and Roses lives actually are. Ben is a boy growing up in rural Minnesota in the 1970’s. He has just suddenly lost his only known parent, his mom. Ben shortly after losing his mom in another twist of fate also loses the hearing in his only functioning ear. Rose’s story is set in the 1920’s. Rose is a girl who is deaf, isolated and misunderstood in the relationships she has. She is eager to go out into the world around her to find something more. Ben too decides to go out into the world, more specifically NYC, to follow clues he’s gathered from his mother’s private belongings. Ben believes these clues will lead him to his dad whom he knows little about.

    Both Ben and Rose at personal risk become seekers. Interestingly what they each sought that starts their venture is not what they find, but, what they find is exactly what they really sought. What is so creative and innovative is that the stories are not told in the same language and the difference is Rose’s story is told with no written words only a language of image, gesture, silent thought and feeling and Ben’s story is told in written words of English which evokes all those same things. Each story enriches the other. There is suspense, mystery, the lost, the found and this incredible plot twist as the actual relationship between Ben and Rose is revealed.

    When I read this book I knew it was distinguished. Wonderstruck easily meets the key criteria to award the Newbery: 1- Quality of theme. The books theme is interwoven between the two stories and how this is revealed makes it original and innovative 2- Quality in presentation of information (accuracy, clarity and organization). The two stories could not have come together as a whole and worked so well if the presentation failed to provide these necessary elements of information. 3-Well developed plot. The plot and timing is well developed or this original and innovative way of telling Ben and Roses story would not have worked as well as it did. In. 4- Well delineation of characters. The characters are well-defined, believable and you become easily involved in what happens with them 5- Well delineated settings. The settings work even if they begin at two very different places and times and then they merge in this unexpected and satisfying way. 6- Appropriateness of style. Mr. Selznick’s style of storytelling is so unique and it brings so much more to the table then words alone can. He sets the bar that much higher for all other authors this year.

    The story style presented through written and image language communicates more than either could on its own.. This book has much to offer children of all ages no matter what their reading level precisely because it uses a universal language and not just the written one. Children do not need to depend on the written word to experience and enjoy this book. This I believe is what distinguishes Mr. Selznick from all the other notable books on this year’s Newbery short list.

    Maybe because I’m 9 years old I miss the controversy the adults see in nominating Wonderstruck for the Newbery award. Some adults don’t believe there are enough written words and the story depends too much on pictures. I just don’t understand how the committee can ignore such a distinguished book based on a lack of “Text” for imagery and believe Mr. Selznick somehow comes up short because there are not enough written words telling his story. I personally never found my “Textbooks” superior to real literature yet no one would dispute their abundance of valuable text. Is the number of written words or images important? And when did that become more important than the story telling. Consider how Mr. Selznick succeeds where others fear to tread and he does it without the familiar ( for some of us) sounds words make in our head as their read.

    Mr. Selznick has found a way to use an familiar and unfamiliar language to tell the whole story in an way that is always appropriate and in context. Mr. Melcher would be made proud if the committee fulfills the purpose he set when he created the Newbery award and that was to encourage, recognize, support and reward original creative work in the field of children’s literature. What work this year is more creative, original or evolves the standard of children’s literature than Mr. Selznick in Wonderstruck? None!

  26. I flipped through and reread parts of this book today, and while I stand by my criticisms, none of them seemed as important on a third reading, at least taken out of context. Who knows?


  1. […] of stunning black and white artwork that is the trademark of Selznick. In the review written by Jonathan Hunt for School Library Journal, he described it as such: The first textual chapter is 12 pages long, the subsequent visual chapter […]

  2. […] has been described by Jonathan Hunt from School Library Journal as similar to a ballroom dance with its slow, quick, quick, quick, quick, quick, slow, quick, […]

Speak Your Mind