Brian Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for his first book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel that broke new ground with its dual visual and textual narrative. Wonderstruck also combines words and pictures to tell two independent stories, set fifty years apart. Selznick’s sombre, intensely worked pencil illustrations, although not sepia, provide a sense of times past and as this is a book where the past is also in the present, the two narratives eventually come together in a most moving and satisfying conclusion.
In the more contemporary narrative set in the 1970s on Gunflint lake in Minnesota, 12-year-old Ben’s mother (who was a librarian) has recently died and Ben, now living with his uncle and aunt, is haunted by mysterious dreams of wolves. The world seems to be out of control and, touchingly, Ben wishes it ‘was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad’.
Rifling through his mother’s room, Ben finds a clue to his father’s identity and runs away to New York to find him. Meanwhile, in the visual narrative set in the Hoboken, New Jersey of the 1920s, deaf child Rose is a virtual prisoner in her home, neglected and ignored by her famous mother. Parallels between the stories begin to emerge as both children eventually end up at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where they each encounter the Cabinet of Wonders which is to play a part in their dramas.
Ben has always been deaf in one ear and a freak accident now damages the other. Unable to sign or lip read, his difficulty in communicating adds to the feelings of tension and desperation in the story as he searches for somewhere to belong. Selznick’s ‘combination’ narrative works particularly well, given his theme of deafness and the need deaf people have to communicate visually. His account is a sensitive one – Ben’s hearing issues are treated matter of factly by his cousin Robbie and Ben is very much a protagonist who happens to be deaf. Being a deaf child in the 1920s as Rose is can be problematic. Part of her struggle is to be allowed out into the world and to go to a deaf school.
One of the many treats in Selznick’s story is the way he brings the history of collecting and the establishment of museums to life. Every child who wants to can be the curator of their own collection and Selznick’s affable, accessible style allows plenty of space for his readers to bring their own sense of wonder to this richly enjoyable novel.