wonderstruck (?)

Wonderstruck should find its greatest effect with a Reader who will just plunge right in; one who is okay with Literature; one who can make many a layered connections and likes to think about their reads; one who is really gone on Selznick’s artwork.” ~L (further down in this blog post.)

Wonderstruck : A Novel in Words and Pictures by Brian Selznick

Scholastic Press, 2011.

629 pages, hardcover.

I know that many of you know that I was underwhelmed, if not bored, by The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I am fairly certain that myself and the daughter are among the very few who felt that way. I was determined to give Wonderstruck a fair go*. While I was not bored, I was a bit underwhelmed–again. What follows is a review <sans any real spoilers> and my working out my response. First, I did not dislike this book. I feel that needs to be made clear (and I think it will become clear after the rambling)**.

Ben and Rose secretly wish their lives were different. Ben longs for the father he has never known. Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his mother’s room and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out alone on desperate quests to find what they are missing.

Set fifty years apart, these two independent stories — Ben’s told in words, Rose’s in pictures — weave back and forth with mesmerizing symmetry. How they unfold and ultimately intertwine will surprise you, challenge you, and leave you breathless with wonder. Rich, complex, affecting, and beautiful — with over 460 pages of original artwork —Wonderstruck is a stunning achievement from a uniquely gifted artist and visionary.~Jacket copy.

I think one should completely ignore the jacket copy*** and just dive right into the ambitious Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, but for this: “Set fifty years apart, these two independent stories — Ben’s told in words, Rose’s in pictures — weave back and forth […] How they unfold and ultimately intertwine will surprise you.” I am not sure who would feel “challenged” or “breathless with wonder”–except perhaps for the challenge and wonderment as to why Wonderstruck exists as it does. In one vein, I am still wrestling with the question as to why full, often double-spread, images were necessary; although, admittedly, the theater and screen sequence is lovely that way. And I suppose the novel would represent all its illustrated story sequences as if it were of the silent cinema screen. Yet, the artwork, however fabulous, at times feels almost pixilated in the result. I am likely feeling very stubborn on this point. In another (oft intersecting) vein, I am yet wondering over Wonderstruck‘s intended audience? If you’ve read varied and cumulatively, you are less likely to be awed. If you haven’t, an awestruck pose is more likely. The younger crowd is the best bet, the Juvenile shelf, but I think a good set of comprehension skills makes the novel all the better… Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, i.e. the non-cynical, non-critical, more open-to-wonderment type Readers. Again the younger crowd. I can only guess at the success of the striking of wonder.


Ben begins in Gunflint Lake, Michigan 1977; Rose in Hoboken, New Jersey 1927. The stories that intertwine parallel and for the sake of a few pleasurable surprises, I will withhold one important parallel and leave it as the Publisher would, Ben and Rose are looking for what they are missing. I will spoil the surprise that deafness and silence is an important part of the novel. It is no small coincidence that Rose is fascinated by the Silent Screen and historically, there is the coming of the Talkie and thus sense of panic for Rose. It is no small coincidence that it is necessary to read the silent pages of images, to read composition, movement, expressions, etc.  The composition of the novel as object and metaphor is especially important to regard in/with Wonderstruck.

Both Ben and Rose seek out and collect objects, which in turn lead to clues that guide them, if not at the very least send them forth on their adventures. You finally see, beyond the segues of storms, journeys, conditions, clues, collected objects, and companions, there is a particular object that the two share. The Reader will likely guess that there should be more than sheer magical coincidence in Wonderstruck. How deeply it goes is something to marvel over at the end of the read. The “particular object” helps solidify connections, helps answer the reader’s questions.

Ben finds a book that his mother kept hidden but cherished. It is titled Wonderstruck. A “small, blue book” (95) in this case. The book is about the history of museums. Ben reads: “A museum is a collection of objects, all carefully displayed to tell some kind of magnificent story. […] These objects didn’t appear out of nowhere” (97).  Ben reads further, “These early collections, centuries ago, were stored in pieces of furniture called Cabinets of Wonders. […] The viewer was able to walk into one of these rooms and, as if reading a book, understand the wonder of the world just from the stories told by the collected objects and how they were displayed” (108). Selznick’s Wonderstruck concerns itself with a history as well. And this novel would epitomize the idea of “a collection objects, carefully displayed to tell some kind of magnificent story.” Selznick collects, catalogs, and curates characters and objects and places (97). Wonderstruck could be viewed as a Cabinet of Wonder.

Ben remembered reading about curators in Wonderstruck, and thought about what it meant to curate your own life. […] What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go into your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house, and his books, and the secret room, he realized he’d already begun doing it. Maybe, thought Ben, we are all cabinets of wonders. (574)

Rose keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and memorabilia. Jamie takes Polaroid pictures, others build diorama displays, while still others have children, and/or tokens which house memories. Each object or person or moment interconnect into a greater story, complex layers with complicated and individualized ways of communicating. Objects like the Parallels move in and out of time and bring together a story that is ultimately about finding connections; a sense of identity and belonging; context.

Rose’s storyline creates a sinister edge, and I was trying not to skim read Ben’s drama to see what is going on with Rose. While the edge slowly becomes more blunted, the reader isn’t wholly mislead–not in thinking about Rose’s situation, especially in 1927. The later explanation, the written words Selznick gives her later on, provide further clarity. But for the first two parts of the three part novel, there are little mysteries for the reader to solve, while the larger mystery, how the two stories connect, remains a bit trickier.  Why are the two stories are being told and with so many intersecting points and parallels? How could it possibly unfold?

And afterward?–why does it unfold in that particular way? And while satisfying (?), I am curious as to the show of hands of those who were thrilled; at the very least, appropriately ‘whelmed’.

It helps to mind Ben’s narrative, to think about the novel as it unfolds, as if the novel were a museum, as if the characters were little cabinets of wonder. This idea is further explored in that third part where the pulse slows, where the first two parts are meeting in more of a Lifetime Channel drama than a mystery-adventure story. As the pulse slows and the more serious reality sets in, the tone of the novel changes. To its detriment? I don’t know. But for its purpose? Necessary.

Wonderstruck should find its greatest effect with a Reader who will just plunge right in; one who is okay with Literature; one who can make many a layered connections and likes to think about their reads; one who is really gone on Selznick’s artwork. His writing is good. Selznick’s ability to describe a scene or suspense is as talented as his ability to replicate it visually. The transitions, the interweaving is good. For such a lengthy book, it is a fairly quick read. The “hmmm” at the end for me took the longest. Did anyone else find Jamie equal parts sweet and creepy? The Lifetime Channel ending threw me; which I tend to find pleasant, but I was really hoping for something more grisly–which would have undermined all that effort with the museum/cabinet metaphor–though, maybe it could have worked?

It is apparent that there was a lot of thought put into Wonderstruck; a careful plotting of mystery and then transparency in which to compel the reader while guiding them toward the final (non-flourishing) tying of the bow. [see Roger Sutton’s review below.] Many will marvel. Many will be wonderstruck, “experiencing a sudden feeling of awed delight or wonder” (Oxford English Dictionary). I thought it was good. I still question its excessive use of pages, but I would recommend anyone check it out from their local Library. –Especially those Historical Fiction readers, lovers of Silent Film, those interested in the struggles (or capabilities) of the deaf and mute, those who like creative and complicated reads, and those mentioned above, of course.


If you’ve a young writerly audience, Wonderstruck (and The Invention of Hugo Cabret, of course) in company with the brilliance of David Almond/Dave McKean’s Slog’s Dad, Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday, The Search for Wondla by Tony DiTerlizzi, much of Shaun Tan’s work, along with a number of graphic novels, would be a fun exploration of visual/textual balanced mediums of creative storytelling. Where the comic and literature find intersection and good company–the picture book.*** Although, Adam Gopnick, in his review (I linked below), would suggest only storyboards could compare:

““Hugo Cabret” was one of those rare books — Chris Van Allsburg’s tale “The Polar Express” is the last that comes to mind — that strike imaginations small and large with a force, like, well, thunder. Neither graphic novel nor illustrated book, its composite of storytelling forms seemed derived from the storyboards of some lost Czech genius of the silent film era rather than anything evident in other books.”

Should he get around more [No, I don’t know who he is exactly], or do you agree with him?


*Wow, sound pretentious don’t I? “Young upstart” will likely be too mild an expletive response.

** Was it more clear? I feel like Brian Selznick must be one of those really likable people who are talented and eager and ambitious and likable and you really have to like their work, you really want to; I really want to.

*** It was “mesmerizing symmetry” that sealed it. Really? Who would not want this copy writer for their book copy?!

*** Mere speculation, but I am guessing if a juvenile has read any of the listed items, they may be less inclined to be wonderstruck. If they are a fan of silent film and its history and “a lost Czech genius of the silent film era” comes to mind they might be more inclined–I guess.


Roger Sutton’s Horn Book review, brief and brilliantly insightful (as per usual)–check it out.

Adam Gopnick’s New York Times review; is less brief, but interesting in parts.

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

7 thoughts on “wonderstruck (?)

  1. I am one of those who was really was wowed by The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It hit so many of my trigger points: I am a fan of illustration, I am a fan of film, I like YA stories, clockwork inventions are something I am fond of. I felt the story was well told, that it transcended the YA market because of the inclusion of a real historical character and his impact on the film industry, and that it was a delightful read.

    So I suspect I’ll like Wonderstruck. I purchased it the day it was released and my wife has already torn through it and declared it to be an enjoyable read.

    As with any book I certainly don’t expect it to hit the same notes with every reader, even readers who feel they normally like this kind of book. And it is okay, of course, to be in the minority of people who don’t like a book. I LOATHE French’s “In the Woods” with a passion and I am always in the minority in my complaints.

    I just skimmed your review, not wanting to really know anything of what goes on. I also just skimmed the book’s copy as I was picking it up as I would rather just experience it cold, knowing that I already like the author.

    I am hoping to get to it in the next few days and whenever I can manage it I’ll come back and chat more about it.

    1. i really hope you enjoy it. i think you will, primarily because what I felt Selznick well in “Hugo” he does well here. I was really drawn-in and compelled by the characters he creates, most especially Rose, and the way he tells her story.

      Can’t remember if you’ve read The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart? Milies features prominently in that one as well.

      1. I started reading it and then got annoyed with what I felt were structure problems with the narrative and with the weirdness I felt about how adult parts of it seemed. Didn’t fit with what I wanted the book to be.

  2. I only discovered Hugo Cabret this past summer, but I completely fell in love with it. I’m very much looking forward to reading Wonderstruck – that you compare it to Almond/McKean or Shaun Tan is the cherry on top.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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