Jenny's Library

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Posted on: September 26, 2012

cover image for WonderstruckWonderstruck is the story of two children whose lives are intertwined in unexpected ways, despite growing up in entirely different decades.

We begin in 1977 with Ben, a twelve-year old boy who recently lost his mother and is now living with his aunt, uncle, and cousins.  Still coping with the loss of both his family and his home, Ben attempts to find comfort in the clothes and treasure s his mother left behind.  When he stumbles across clues as to his missing father’s identity, Ben to sets off on his own in search of his remaining parent.

Our second story takes place in 1927 and is told only in pictures.  It shows us a young girl struggling to be heard and taken seriously in a world that dismisses her because of her deafness.  Like Ben, Rose runs  away to New York City in search of hope and answers.

Scattered throughout both plots are bits and pieces of the history of museums and curation, as well as some glimpses into the history of Deaf culture.  All of these tales are woven seamlessly together for a memorable and dramatic conclusion that is reminiscent of Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese.

illustration of Rose, from Wonderstruck

Wonderstruck is clever as well as memorable.  As the two plots move along, the similarities between the children become increasingly obvious and the book that Ben carries with him, also called Wonderstruck, gradually takes on a Neverending Story book-within-a-book type quality.   Although the parallels and connections between Rose, Ben, and Ben’s book are often too elementary to be called subtle, there is still a smoothness to it all that allows for the simplicity to shine rather than become distracting. The audience is not told everything explicitly, nor are the references too sophisticated for children to pick out on their own.  Instead, younger readers are led, step by step, to the discovery that the increasing coincidences are anything but.

illustration of American Musuem of Natural History from Wonderstruck

The self-reference is not merely an artist’s conceit either; the cascading revelations serve to illustrate to a middle grade audience how homages and allusions work, making it easier for them to realize on their own that the similarities between this title and stories not contained within it, such as The Mixed-up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler, are designed rather than random.  Or, at the very least, they create an understanding of the concept that makes it easier to recognize it when others point it out.

Selznick’s treatment of deafness, and Deaf culture, deserves a mention as well.  While the difficulties and prejudice facing deaf children are shown with clarity and given prominence within the book, at no point is disability treated as the sum of who they are.  The plot manages to neither treat these struggles as merely window dressing nor focus so much on them that any other character development is pushed aside.  The balance that is found here, in which the protagonists’ disconnection with the mainstream world is explored, without implying that their different-ness is the only interesting thing about them, is one that is both notable and far too rare.  Best of all, the ending leaves us with a framing of belonging that is not predicated on anyone being “fixed.”

From start to finish, Wonderstruck is elegant, delightful, and indeed full of wonder.

Selznick, Brian. (2011). Wonderstruck. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Best for Ages: 8-12


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