"review" · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

{book} hold fast

a lengthy, shockingly spoiler-free, post for Blue Balliett’s latest. This isn’t an apology, merely an acknowledgment. There are so many lovely and terribly relevant explorations … 

hold fast cover

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Scholastic Press, 2013.

hardcover, 274 pages.

Where is Early’s father? He’s not the kind of father who would disappear. But he’s gone . . . and he’s left a whole lot of trouble behind.

As danger closes in, Early, her mom, and her brother have to flee their apartment. With nowhere else to go, they are forced to move into a city shelter. Once there, Early starts asking questions and looking for answers. Because her father hasn’t disappeared without a trace. There are patterns and rhythms to what’s happened, and Early might be the only one who can use them to track him down and make her way out of a very tough place.

With her signature, singular love of language and sense of mystery, Blue Balliett weaves a story that takes readers from the cold, snowy Chicago streets to the darkest corner of the public library, on an unforgettable hunt for deep truths and a reunited family.~publisher’s comments.

Important: late Middle English: from medieval Latin important- ‘being of consequence’, from the verb importare ‘bring in’.  Adjective: of great significance or value, likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being; having high rank or status; significantly original and influential.

I am sketching out a list of “important juvenile fiction books and authors.” You should know that I think books and writers are important period, but this list is for those who place intimate conversations of a social and creative consciousness into the hands of young people. Blue Balliett is located with indelible ink on this list. With Hold Fast, Balliett has used her considerable gift  to not only pen a compelling mystery, but to raise awareness for the plight of our homeless children. She also returns with her signature take on the brilliance of young minds. If you’ve read Balliett, you understand how singular she is, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Meet the Pearls:

“Taken with a cell phone camera, this family portrait: Dashel Pearl, his wife, Summer, and their kids, Early and Jubilation, a daughter and a son. They live in Woodlawn, once feared as the home of Chicago’s most powerful gang, but now a quieter place. The family sits in two tidy rows on the chipped steps of a brick building, knees to backs, parents behind kids, hands sealing the foursome. Boy by girl behind girl by boy: symmetrical and smiling. The father is pale, the mother dark, the kids cocoa and cinnamon. Eyes in this family are green, amber, and smoky topaz.” (5)

They live in the largest apartment they can afford: a one bedroom primarily furnished with found objects. Dashel gets around by bicycle year round to get to public transit.* She stays home with 4 year old Jubie. Early, 11, attends school. They are saving for a house, like the one they pass on family walks “that invites dreams” (7).

Dashel’s love of reading and words with meaning is infectious. The family keeps notebooks of quotes and words. He tells his children, “words are everywhere and for everyone […] words are free and plentiful” (6); and they are empowering. Dash also shares his love of Langston Hughes. “What’s the rhythm, Langston?” is often heard. Dash, adopted as a baby and then lost those parents young, grew up in a number of foster homes. “He didn’t have a parent or grandparent to give him advice, but Langston seemed to do just as well. […] Dash had told Early that this famous poet was a rainbow mix, too, like Sum and probably Dash himself: Langston had African American, white, Jewish, and Native American roots. And, like Dash, Langston had grown up without much love or a steady home” (87). Hughes spoke often of dreams and their importance, and this spoke to the Pearls.

When Dash goes missing the readers are equally unsure what might’ve happened to him. It doesn’t look good even before his disappearance is complicated by the arrival of criminals breaking-into the Pearl’s home in a pretty scary sequence that leaves Sum, Early and Jubie without wallet or home. We are quickly introduced to the everyday realities of families who haven’t had it as good as the Pearl’s. The neighbor lady (whom they only know by sight) and others are surprised by Sum’s ignorance of how to navigate social rescue/welfare organizations and numbers. Worse is when profiling really kicks in by our greater institutions—and noticeably not by the homeless shelter workers.

“Something terrible has happened to keep my husband away, we’re terrified, have had to leave our home, have been robbed, lost our savings, and our family has done nothing wrong. Now, aren’t the police supposed to protect people like us?” (72)

“I realized something awful in that room today. That when you’re this poor and without money or an address, hardly anyone thinks you’re worth listening to or helping. Just the words living in a shelter make you you someone the police aren’t too worried about, less than your average citizen when it comes to rights. And now that Dash is missing, the fact that he’d been a man with a job, a family, and a home doesn’t seem to count. Seeing how excited the detectives were about [spoiler], I knew they cared more about [spoiler] than the man. Or us.” (132)

Early’s response to the latter being the understatement of the year: “Dang,” Early said, swallowing hard. “That’s scary.” It is of interest that the mother’s realization is expressed well after Early’s experience at school where children can be really cruel and adults can be inept. Children see and know more than they are often credited. And their resilience is not an excuse to continue to ignore their vulnerabilities.

The novel clings to the compassionate as it collides with the hardness of people and life. Balliett moves the reader in thoughtful ways, using the mystery and Early’s youth and smarts to guide the reader through a book that refuses to look away from its subjects. I love how authors employ humor to counter-weigh the complex and often ugly moments of a book, but I savor and admire the juvenile fiction author who can rely on other, rarer, charms. Balliett threads hope to counter-weigh, she employs a light, and this is a different smile, and it comes before the story’s end.

The structure of the novel is of import to the pacing of its heart-felt, brain-felt 274 pages. The Pearls, we learn, keep a notebook of onomatopoeia. The chapters (but for the first and last) are named after “C” words that are onomatopoeia. Each have smaller sections that begin with each word and hold thematically. The breaks move and relieve the reader along a linear timeline of the 3rd-person limited variety. We follow Early who uses words and rhythms in ways the book demonstrates. Each of those “C” words come with definitions where in the chapters reiterate their meaning. Early shares words, the author introduces each character with the intention of their names. Dashel “Dash” (p 15) increases with significance in characterization—and in light of the title: Hold Fast. And of course, that opening definition and intention that opens the novel grounds everything:

“Home, from the Middle English hom and Old English ham. Noun: a place to live by choice, sometimes with family or friends; a haven; a place of origin, comfort, and often of valued memories.

“By the end of the 2012 school year, an estimated thirty thousand children in the city of Chicago were without a home. This number does not include those living in the surrounding suburbs, and is thought to be low.”

According to the “Acknowledgment” at the end of the book (after p 274), Balliett did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people. The novel would portray a sense of what homelessness would look like for Early and her mother and brother, and touch on the experiences of other’s situations with equal gravity. Some of the compositions are stark, others strongly inferred, and all of it touching.

“Facts on the homeless vary, depending on what you read and how statistics are collected and presented. Shelter rules also vary. Not to be questioned, however, are the harsh realities of homelessness. Sadly, they have nothing to do with fiction.”

I mentioned hope, and one such beacon is Early. Early keeps her head up, and both her self-awareness and the awareness of her surroundings is necessary to this hope-fullness. Aged 11, Early is a creative force to be reckoned with—though I have no reason to believe she is unique in her ability rise up against the hardships that would hold her down. She relies on the hope of seeing her father and rightly believes in her ability in solving the mystery of his disappearance. She has doubts, which coincide with the reader’s, artfully instigated by the clever author. But she has notions that keep her going, that enquiring eye of hers searching out rhythms, patterns, riddles and connections to be solved, or at the very least contemplated. We have the mystery unfolding to keep us turning pages, but time is harder on Early and she needs more than the mystery to balance out despair. Enter the energizing effect of a creative energy that empowers and enlists hope and fits snugly into the import of holding fast to our ability to dream.

Enlightened by her situation, head-up and engaged, Early starts to notice, to really look at people (thinking of Waive) and her surroundings—and to question: “How come there are so many homes standing empty in Chicago and so many people like us who don’t have a home? How come those empty homes aren’t being fixed up and filled with people who need a place to live” (171)?

It is a question Balliett bids the reader to linger over in her “Note:” “As of October 2011, the city of Chicago reported roughly fifteen thousand abandoned buildings, most the result of foreclosure. They sit silent, haunting the neighborhoods that surround them. With an estimated thirty thousand homeless kids in this city, the questions are obvious. Luckily, so are the dreams.” “The dreams” are a nod to Early’s idea for project (202-3) and its yield (253-7). Balliet novels believe in a children’s capacity to be powerful agents of change. That children are brilliant.

Brilliant: late 17th century: from French brillant ‘shining’. Adjective: (of light or colour) very bright; exceptionally clever or talented; outstanding; impressive; very good, excellent, or marvelous. Noun:a diamond of brilliant cut.

And it isn’t only in Hold Fast that someone(s) would thieve [from] the brilliant.

There are some points in the novel that are especially difficult. One is what and how much Summer (the mother) leaves to and confides in Early. In a lot of ways it is necessary in informing Early and the reader for the sake of the plot. But it also points to Balliett’s bold consistency of character and allowing for that kind of discomfort. Jubie is 4 and a product of the environs of those 4 years; this adds incredible tension. As for Early and Summer: children in tough circumstances grow up quickly at the loss of childhood, and (no matter how good a parent) the grief and depression of an adult after the loss of a loved-one takes a toll. Summer is left very much alone, the family alienated of relatives and community. Add the burden of societally placed barriers and inconsistencies and there is a lot of unfairness to pass around. There are plenty of places in which we could intervene. Hold Fast relays grim realities even as it models a compassion toward those too oft robbed of the dignity of its reception. Compassion is a first step.

Dreams (by Langston Hughes)

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Dash places this poem in the family notebook (54), and the next poem in sequence is Hughes’ “What happens to a dream deferred?”, which reflects a real life tension in the novel. Hold Fast’s antidote for despair is to continue to hope and dreams fuel our hope,** while minding Hughes question and the final line of its poem.

Balliet’s incorporation of such impacting artists and their translation into such intimate spaces, such as a young person’s mind, provides an incalculable worth to her novels. Balliet writes good mysteries, mysteries with unexpected textures, with complexities that make for a rich and rewarding read. I love how empowered and inspired her young protagonists are towards using all of their selves creatively and determinedly.

I find Balliet entertaining, but I acknowledge that a lot of the thrill comes from admiring her craftiness. But does “entertaining” necessarily translate as “mindless?” There are plenty of fluffy reads to excite many a reader and they hold a place, but I do hope those many find a more challenging read, an important book now and again that gifts an awareness that makes us a better human.

recommendation: ages 8-13, boys & girls, would be nice to read w/ a grown-up and plan some sort of service project, to say nothing of penning dreams and starting notebooks. for the creative-minded (aka anyone); for bibliophiles; the impact of word, book, libraries, teachers, and poets is awesome in Hold Fast.

of note: it would be tempting to refer Balliett books to those kids who have tested into gifted programs, whether it be reading, writing, math and/or spatial…or any who benefit from atypical curriculum. but one of the many things that impresses me with Balliett’s books, is how you can pick out adults who believe in the potential of the child protagonist and invest in them, sharing their time, intellect, creative play… In honor of Balliett, I wouldn’t dare underestimate any child’s needs or abilities. I would encourage and child (and adult) to give one of her novels a go. Hold Fast is as good as any a starting place.

*noticed the other (very wintry) day the sheer number of Denver’s service sector/day laborers that use bikes to get around; w/ educated guesses that they have to use them to reach public transit as well, bus lines and bike lanes relatively wasted on multi-car-owning neighborhoods.

**A Dianna Wynn Jones quote comes to mind (thanks to Sarah), “nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless.”

I pulled my definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary (US version)

my review of The Danger Box.

"review" · Children's · Illustrator · Picture book · recommend

{book} the guild of geniuses

DAY 16

The Guild of Geniuses by Dan Santat

Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic), 2004.

Dan Santat has been on my radar since Sidekicks and from a bookshop browsing of the laugh-out-loud Kel Gilligan’s Daredevil Stunt Show (w/ Michael Buckley) [review to come]. I’d seen him in Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World (w/ Mac Barnett) and the cover of Lisa Yee’s Bobby vs Girls, both I can easily recommend.

Movie Star Frederick and Mr. Pip (a monkey) are best friends. A big party is thrown for Frederick’s birthday with many important guests and really impressive gifts before he has to travel for a film shoot. Before he goes, Frederick notices Mr. Pip seems down and he can’t figure out why. Well, if anyone can help solve the mystery surely it is the Guild of Geniuses, they have figured out all kinds of marvelous solutions for other things. Can they figure out what is wrong with Mr. Pip and help resolve his problem? Can you?

Just when you think that you need to do something clever and exceptional to be impressive, here comes the reminder in Dan Santat’s The Guild of Geniuses that often it is the simple and unassuming things that speak to a relationship more effectively. “You don’t have to be a genius to be a good friend” (publisher copy). Sure it is fun to think about all these grandiose gestures or inventions or adventures, but anyone who knows my friend Juanita Martus, or has met Mr. Pip in The Guild of Geniuses knows there is power in a home-made heart-felt gesture—like a card. They find and give the nurturing kind of gifts; the kind that with no doubt at all let you know they are thinking of you, not themselves. We often think too hard, go too extravagantly whether the person is a celebrity-type or no. Sometimes the obvious answer seems small, but then, it is obvious for a reason, and the answer to why is Mr. Pip down won’t be hard for the reader to identify early on. Still, it is fun to watch Frederick and the Guild try. And it all builds toward a very sweet ending for what we come to appreciate as a very precious friendship.

Yes, I used the word precious. But you’ll notice all the rich colors, energetic angles, and the imagination at play. This isn’t watercolor or pastoral or lavender-scented. This is “acrylic and mixed media on Bristol paper, a little elbow grease, and the right side of the brain.” This has solid gold cars, robots, a monkey in space, and crazy facial hair. It is big and loud and fun with a lot of movement and inspiring ideas. The Guild of Geniuses is for boys and girls to pull of the shelf of their own accord as opposed to the set-up. “So I found this great book, Natalya! We could read it together if you want…” as we are prone to do, read great books together; but this just so happens to be that time of year where a great friend’s birthday, or Holiday, or some parent’s day is closing in… Actually, I am thinking that maybe ‘set-ups’ might help with those reading comprehension skills because Natalya is exceptional in that area and I ‘set her up’ all the time with these books. “I know what this book’s about and what you are doing,” Natalya still says years later. Good news is though that it is very likely the child in your life will just think you are cool, to say nothing of loving, if you recommend this one…if you set it up right. Seriously though, there is a quality to Santat’s style and storytelling that will appeal to our early reading ages.

recommend: Santat will easily appeal to the boys, but do not underestimate your girl-child either; science-/engineering- minded, although, isn’t every child early on? but you know what I mean, the mad-laboratory kind of child—which is everyone in the “early reader” set? nevermind… good for lovers of comics. also a good one to try on the reluctant reader/listening-to-reader kid.

{images belong to Dan Santat}

you can check out the endpapers image here, & take a sneak peek at the party at the end (which differs significantly (thematically) from the one near the beginning).

my review of Sidekicks

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series

{comic} amulet: prince of the elves

The enemy grows stronger… Emily survived the chaos of the Guardian Academy, but Max Griffin has stolen the Mother Stone. Wit it, the Elf King forges new Amulets that will give him the power to invade and destroy the nation of Windsor. Emily and her friends lead the soldiers of the Cielis Guard in a fight to stop him, but Max stands in their way. And when she seeks information from the Voice of her Amulet, she discovers that the Voice is much more sinister than she ever could have imagined. –back cover.

Amulet vol5: Prince of the Elves by Kazu Kibuishi

Graphix (Scholastic), 2012. 199 pages, tradepaper. soon-to-be owned.


Emily’s relationship with her stone has always been tenuous at best: could she trust it’s advice or no. Little did she realize that the fact her stone even speaks with her is a terrible sign. Stones were merely meant as conduits through which the Keeper’s may channel power. The only ones ever known to have spoken with their Keeper’s have led to bad ends. The already sinister presence of the Voice deepens substantially (and rather deliciously). The stakes of the game it and Emily play have heightened and Emily can no longer resist half-heartedly. She, like the Kingdom on the verge of war, must fight.

Kazu Kibuishi continues to complicate any effort for a straight-forward action-adventure fantasy. The decisions that lead the young toward “the dark side” are of considerable interest and what constitutes “action-adventure” varies rather wonderfully. The character explorations of hero and villain alike makes each volume of the series richer, but it also creates lovely juxtaposition for Emily and her brother (even their mothers’) development as characters in their increasingly demanding roles. In Prince of the Elves we learn more about Max Griffin who when he was as young and talented as Emily (maybe moreso) knew love and loyalty and he was also faced with conflicting paths; whose guidance, whose destiny should he fulfill? The world was so much bigger than he and so much was beyond his control. But Max was bold and decisive–and the risk did not end well. His emotions overcoming his intellect? Few characters’ situations lack compassion by the storyteller, there is a tension in knowing a villain may have once been “good,” and in witnessing someone like Trellis who must find the courage to return to his youthful potential and promising origins. The struggles within the cast members surrounding Emily, Navin and Mom give them greater dimension. A young Max and Emily are not unalike, what implications does this create for Emily and how does her statement at the end make her difference so vital.

I’ve mentioned before how parents are not absent from the series. I adore the struggle of the mother to continue in her role as Mom, but also deal with the incredible risks her children take. Her children have been called forth as leaders, possessing more and more the experience, power, and guts to lead armies. But for Emily and Navin’s mom, they are still her children. She is interesting to think about in comparison to the other parents, like Max’s father and Vigo who represent the risks of underestimating and properly estimating. For the young reader, Mom is probably more a place of rest and humor. The sequence on 60-1 felt so typical, like Mom is sending her son off to school. And then there is that last panel at the bottom corner of 61, her reflection caught, somewhat split, by the elevator doors closing. The courage called upon in this adventure takes on so many forms.

As the series continues the scope of the Kingdom and what is at stake in the war with the Elf King increases dramatically. The Elf King’s creatures/assassins become more terrifying. And the reader’s investment in the characters solidify—even as the cast expands. It is becoming harder and harder to wait for the next installment, even as the toll of a great war is inevitable and I’m not ready to encounter its cost. Kazu Kibuishi has truly created a remarkable series with Amulet.


Kazu Kibuishi shares on his site:

This book was tremendously difficult to write, as I chose to stray far from conventional story structure, and I decided to simply let the characters be my guides.  I think it proved to be an effective gamble.  It was such a joy to discover so much about the characters and the world in this way, and I think the readers will enjoy the ride as much as I did.

It was a very effective gamble–and I truly love knowing there are craftsmen willing to take such risks. I know readers will enjoy the ride–both the young and less-young.


you can go to Amazon, here, and click to see images inside.

{images after the cover. 1–great fan art of “Kazu Kibuishi’s ‘Amulet'” by Katie Shanahan via;}

my review of books 1-4 (where are there more images, I talk about the artwork, and wherein I know I do not give Jason Caffoe credit for incredible color work.).

I’ve since learned the reason Amulet has a cinematic feel is because Kibuishi went did Film Studies at University.

"review" · fiction · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{book} uglies

Uglies by Scott Westerfield

Scholastic Press, 2005.

paperback, 448 pages. borrowed.

There is, very probably a canon of Young Adult reads. The sort of collection where if you want to be taken seriously as a reader of YA you must have read certain authors and titles. Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series is on it—as it should be. I have heard it referenced often, and thanks to Natalya who brought it home from school on Friday, I finally made the excuse to read book one: Uglies.

This is where I admit to disliking the titles in this series (Uglies, Pretties, and Specials) and their continual use throughout the novel. I also admit to loathing the ridiculous name of that section of the city called Pretty Town. Why? I feel immediately sucked into that hideous simpering hole that is the cliché of prissy female adolescence. Westerfield is a genius.*

In this future-scape, Tally is only a few short months away from a full-body-altering surgery that will make her “pretty”—and she needs to be pretty. Her best friend Peris (such an unfortunate spelling for the male) has had his surgery and is already in Pretty Town where life is just one party after another, to say nothing of the social ramifications of left being Ugly. All she has to do is behave and wait it out until she turns 16, too. But Tally makes a new friend, Shay, who despite their being the very same age has different views about the impending change—in fact, Shay is going to run away to where other rebels have fled, to live in the wilderness. This shouldn’t have affected Tally except she is the only one who knows where Shay went and the government wants Tally to find that settlement. Tally has to betray her friend or risk never becoming “pretty” and lose everything.

Tally has to follow clues in order to find the settlement and she is daring and resourceful if nothing else. She is also able to grasp the full scope of what is going on as the Utopic shine begins to tarnish and the truth behind all those Pretty faces is revealed. But the homespun wilds is no cake walk either. Growing up, peeking behind the veil of propaganda or idealism, it seems, is serious business, people. It is a testament to Westerfield’s ability that he can draw characters who have their moments of wisdom as well as absolute foolishness—characters who can be neither likeable or heinous.

Westerfield writes great action and adventure and any romance serves to develop the characters further and melds seamlessly into the turn in the plot. However, the question at the center of Tally’s adventure remains throughout: which promises will she keep and whom will she betray? Her own interest rarely figures in after the first—after we come to understand how being Ugly versus Pretty figures in. And even then, Westerfield paces the world-building, using the initially narrow scope of our first person narrative as an excuse to tease out new and enlightening perspectives as the character learns more and more about the society/world about her.

Needless to say, there is a lot of criticism regarding appearance, conformity, stereotyping and there is a healthy dose of eco-criticism as well. Westerfield creates a sensical Utopia, taking the reverse of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron and prettying everyone up rather than catering to the lowest denominator. While it may not seem fair from the first, it doesn’t seem wholly unreasonable, feeding into our own contemporary “understandings” about social and biological interaction. Tally is a good average adolescent, a reliable avatar. Passive and typical until she becomes more willingly decisive and singular as Westfield slowly introduces complications until he ups the ante irreparably. He turns the pages and it would do to have book two (Pretties) on hand.

recommendations: 12 -17 (middle school-12th); anyone human; those interested in sci-fi, dystopia, and/or action/adventure; social and/or ecological critique done in a surprisingly non-heavy-handed way considering how it dominates the story.

*although “genius” in this way may not have been intentional.

"review" · juvenile lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series

{book} the false prince

The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Book One of the Ascendance Trilogy

Scholastic Press, 2012.

hardcover, 342 pages. borrowed from Library.

“Four boys. One treacherous plan. An entire kingdom to fool.”

In Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, four orphans compete for the role of the lost prince in a bold plan to prevent civil war and strengthen the kingdom against predatory neighbors. The consequences of losing are fatal.

The first-person narrator, Sage, is a wit and a half, and we can also be doubly assured of who the winner of the competition will be.* Nonetheless, Nielsen does not make the succeeding easy and strives for as breathless a competition manageable. She kicks it off with an unforgettable beginning.

The competition creates a lot of difficulties for the characters and the reader. Just how noble are Connors intentions and how far is he willing to go to bring the kingdom not only to an equitable state, but one on the return to power? How far are the boys willing to go to win? Each begin with disadvantages, trying to emulate a second son of the king who was viewed as incorrigible. The closest personality type is Sage who has the daring, luck, and sense of humor to ease the dark plot and competition into a lighter juvenile adventure.

<potential spoiler>

The novel takes a shift at chapter 42 (p. 258). I would have liked to seen a Part II divider here (and am curious why there isn’t). The division of parts would have finessed the transition. The narrator’s chair opens up, and subsequently, the story-telling takes on a different mien. The first person limited to Sage shifts from the present to a past with Queen Erin and then to the young Prince Jaron before returning to Sage in the present where we all can make the aha! that Mott does at the end of chapter 41. The one we were expected to make by then anyway (right?). The shift is brilliant in the sense that the author can contribute a new angle to an otherwise predictable trajectory and refresh the adventure Sage has embarked upon however involuntarily.


The adventure is a bold one (as the jacket copy swears it is); it is full of danger, and has a healthy heaping of lies to keep the intrigue turning up until the very end where you can truly appreciate the cleverness of the book’s title. I have no real sense where Nielson is going to take this trilogy, but I am very much looking forward to whatever it is she has for us.

recommendations10&up, girls and boys. fans adventure, intrigue, and/or fantasy. It is a quick-paced read and should hold even the least avid reader’s attention.

of note: Sage reminded me of Will from John Flanagan’s wonderful The Ranger’s Apprentice series—which is a good thing. Also, the book could be a stand alone, but I had one of those rare moments (of late) of “why not?”

I heard a rumor this has been optioned for film. If I had my druthers, animation would be the way to go; child actors in medieval garb…does that ever turn out well?


*Doubly because he is the protagonist and this is book one of a trilogy. [Natalya concurs: even though she knew Sage would survive, Nielsen was able to keep her interested in the outcome in other ways, like what exactly will happen to the others? And, ultimately, will Sage pull this off–and how?]


The Mixed Up Files…interview w/ Ms. Nielsen

It’s All About Bookstake.

One Librarian’s Book Reviews review.


"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · mystery · recommend

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.