March 11, 2011
When The Invention of Hugo Cabret came out a few years ago, to immediate deserved acclaim (this summer, it becomes a Scorsese-directed feature film), I remember wondering if its quietly revolutionary storytelling style would catch on with other writers and illustrators. Brian Selznick's novel is mostly conveyed through the words and paragraphs that novels generally use, but there are occasional ten-or-so-page sections in which the narrative is advanced solely by uncaptioned illustrations. These sections don't reflect what's happening in the text; instead, they pick up the story where the words have left off, and then hand it back to the text when finished. This break from traditional narrative structure is part of what made Cabret so astonishing. (Of course, its epic brilliance didn't hurt, either—if you haven’t discovered the book yet, get it now!)
Recently, I came across the first book I've seen since that bears the clear influence of Cabret, from author Carolyn Coman and illustrator Rob Shepperson. Which is interesting, because otherwise, The Memory Bank is reminiscent of children's books of a prior generation, making it a perfect fusion of 20th- and 21st-century styles.
Like Roald Dahl's work, it uses matter-of-fact realism to tell a surreal, potentially harrowing tale: Young Hope is devastated when her blithely monstrous parents leave her toddler sister, Honey, by the side of the road one day, as punishment for unwanted frivolity. They tell Hope to forget her, but she cannot and will not, and instead falls into a deep depression during which she spends most of her time in bed, dreaming vividly about Honey. (These dreams, as well as what’s actually happened to Honey, are recounted in Shepperson’s Hugo Cabret–like illustrated passages.)
Before long, Hope is summoned to appear in person at the World Wide Memory Bank, where she is confronted the uptight Sterling Prion, who oversees collection and storage of every single memory on the planet, before being taken under the wing of Violette Mumm, who oversees its Dreams division. Prion wants to know why Hope is creating so few new memories and so many dreams; it seems there's a war on against a group of rebels who want to destroy memory, and someone with as few new memories as Hope falls naturally under suspicion. (The tone of this entire sequence is right out of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, complete with lightly allegorical aspects to each new character Hope meets, from Prion to Violette Mumm, the head of the bank’s Dreams division.)
Hope's explanation of her unfortunate home life settles the matter quickly, but she begs not to be sent home to her neglectful parents, and Prion reluctantly lets her stay. Encouraged by Mumm, who sees Hope as a "champion dreamer," she starts to piece together what her dreams, as well as unfolding events in the rebellion, are telling her about Honey's whereabouts. (Honey's heartbreaking and revelatory first memory, which Hope eventually discovers, is the story’s climax.)
Like the authors whose style The Memory Bank harks back to, Coman and Shepperson manage the remarkable feat of endowing a seemingly grim setup with airiness. (Both the Dahl-ian setting in a not-quite-real world and the Juster-ian allegories help.) And Shepperson uses Selznick's illo-storytelling technique to particularly good effect; his passages reveal their plot details obliquely, much like the dreams that some of them represent do.
The result is one of those books that grade-school kids who are ready for books with some depth will love; parents reading along with them will find themselves unexpectedly affected. The Memory Bank is both a gem in its own right and, I hope, a sign that Selznick's push beyond the traditional boundaries of children’s storytelling is now a trend.
[Cover image courtesy of Scholastic]