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.