Brian Selznick’s ‘Wonderstruck’ is a worthy family tradition

November 30, 2011

Regular readers of this column (both of you) may have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a tear about books lately. I’ve raged against extreme violence in books and extreme language on book covers.

But I want to offer a present to readers looking for a new holiday tradition, a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle that often overwhelms us during this month or a way to reconnect with the wonder of this season: “Wonderstruck” by Brian Selznick.

Selznick’s name may be familiar. He is the author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, becoming the first novel to win the prize for the best picture book of the year. The remarkable work (Please don’t disrespect this story, which marries prose and illustration in a whopping 533-page tale, by calling it a graphic novel.) has been turned into the Martin Scorcese movie “Hugo.

“Wonderstruck” tells the story of two children, Ben Wilson living in Minnesota in 1977 and Rose Mayhew in New Jersey in 1927. Ben’s story is told in beautiful, vivid prose. Rose’s story is told in stark, dramatic drawings. The illustrations wordlessly tell a story that is so compelling, mysterious and thrilling that you alternately want to turn the pages quickly to see what’s next and linger to closely examine the richly rendered pencil drawings.

There’s no way to convey how evocative and engrossing Selznick’s drawings make Rose’s story or how poignant and moving Selznick’s words make Ben’s story. You have never seen a book like this because there never has been a book like this.


”Wonderstruck” by Brian Selznick (Courtesy)

I introduced Selznick at the National Book Festival in September when he talked about the deeply personal nature of the story. The newly orphaned Ben is deaf in one ear as the book opens; Selznick’s brother was deaf in one ear when they were growing up. “I never really thought about what it was like for him when we were kids; I just teased him. But when I decided I would make Ben be deaf in one ear, I suddenly had all these questions for him and got new insight into what his life was like.”

Selznick went on to describe how he really wanted to draw lightning as a key part of the story (a lightning bolt adorns the book jacket). “But I didn’t want it to just be a random thunderstorm; it needed to be a key part of the story.” So he spent months researching scenarios that would allow him to advance the plot and draw a sequence that features blistering bolts. “In the end, I got to draw my lightning,” he said with a smile that was filled with boyish wonder and excitement.

It is Selznick’s appreciation of the magic of lightning that make “Wonderstruck” the perfect family read-aloud during this season. Turn the lights down and snuggle as a family around the warming light of a fire, the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree or the majestic lights of a menorah.

Children as young as 6 or 7 will be entranced by the story and drawings as will kids home for the holidays from college. They may think themselves too old for family story time. But being too old for this book is like being too old for “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

When the stories of Ben and Rose converge in the last 100 pages, your family will experience something too rare in our crazed, hectic lives: wonder.

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