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November 11, 2011

New Books: Wonder Struck

Brian Selznick's 2007 children's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, followed the path of every author's fantasy: It got magnificent reviews full of words like groundbreaking; it won a Caldecott; it became that book every parent tells every other parent about; and—just to make sure Selznick would be pinching himself—now it's a major motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese. Not bad for his first time out there! Selznick deserved every bit of it, too; Hugo Cabret is marvelous. (If you and your kids haven't read it, I highly recommend it, as does a fellow critic somewhat closer to the intended audience.)

Still, being an inveterate worrier, I wondered how Selznick would follow up on his blaze of glory. The key innovation of Hugo Cabret—in what's otherwise a traditional chapter book, the author inserts ten-to-twenty-page sections in which the narrative is moved along purely through illustrations—seemed almost custom-made, in its cinematic nature, for that book's cinema-themed story. When I saw that Selznick's new book, Wonderstruck, would indeed use the same technique, I wondered if it would work as splendidly the second time around. Might it even start to feel gimmicky, more a narrative crutch than the revelation it had been originally?

About 40 pages into Wonderstruck, I stopped worrying. (And by the way, those 40 went fast—despite their daunting, tome-like size and heft, a side effect of those extended illo-only sections, Selznick's page-turners are surprisingly quick reads.) The author uses his two modes of narration to alternate between two deaf children in different time periods (the 1920s and 1970s) whose lives are mysteriously connected by a wolf diorama at New York's American Museum of Natural History, again expertly weaving real places and events (the 1977 NYC blackout, for example) into his story. And the almost cinematic nature of the illustrated sections retains loses none of its power here: The illustration in which the two stories come together, and we see the 1970s boy's face in an illustration for the first time, packs an incredible emotional punch that literally brought tears to my eyes.

Now, I will admit that by setting his story at this particular museum, and also using the amazing New York City panorama at the Queens Museum of Art as a key location for a vital moment of his story, Selznick had this Upper West Side–raised boy at hello. (There are also several knowing and most pleasing nods to the mother of all museum-based children's books, E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.) Nonetheless, I'm confident that even those less steeped in NYC nostalgia than I am will enjoy Wonderstruck as much as I did. Which is quite a lot.

And in future, I will refrain from doubting Selznick's storytelling technique—and just enjoy it.

[Cover image courtesy of Scholastic]


  1. Hugo wasn't his debut. He wrote the Houdini Box in 1991

  2. Ah, my bad. That was long enough ago that it came in my gap of children's-book awareness, I'm afraid. Will have to check it out!

  3. I've corrected the post (as the anonymous poster notes, I'd incorrectly referred to Hugo Cabret as Selznick's debut children's book, which is not the case).