Thursday, December 29, 2011

5. Wonderstruck

Written & illustrated by Brian Selznick
Scholastic, 2011
$29.99, ages 9 and up, 608 pages
A book, a locket and a dream about wolves leads a deaf boy to a wondrous discovery, in this tour-de-force by a Caldecott Award winner.

Brian Selznick, the creator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, astounds us again with a novel that feels at times like a silent movie reel, as the written story shifts between pencil drawings that go on for several pages.

In the story, two deaf children living 50 years apart in time run away from home in search of things to fill an emptiness in their lives, not yet knowing they're lives will become entwined.

Selznick choreographs two lives separated by time and place, and so adeptly that we become absorbed in the story instantly.

Our reading pace is driven by the drama that unfolds in each frame, and as the children race to discover truths they so desperately need to find, Selznick pans in on faces and scenes, and heightens our sense of urgency.

Along the way, Selznick beautifully illuminates the experience of being deaf, recently and in a more distant past. Readers see how isolated deaf people once were, often at the hands of well-intentioned, but misguided adults.

He also spotlights how sign language has helped to lift deaf people out of isolation, and how it created it's own silent hum of conversation.

Ben's story, set in 1977 in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota, is told, at first, only through words.

Ben, a 12-year-old boy who is deaf in one ear, has just lost his librarian mother in an accident and is haunted by a dream.

In the dream, wolves are quietly stalking him, though he can't understand why because he's always loved wolves.

He's been staying at his aunt's house next door since the accident, but Ben feels lost. His cousin Robby wishes aloud that he wasn't there, and his aunt and uncle are talking about selling Ben's house as if it were no longer his.

Ben never knew his father and pretends that his father is the make-believe astronaut, Major Tom, from a song his mother used to play on the phonograph.

Maybe one day, Major Tom will burst down from the stars and rescue him.

One night, Ben slips back home and in his mother's closet, discovers a locket with a picture of a man he thinks could be his long-lost father.

He also finds a small blue book about the history of museums, called Wonderstruck, that was dedicated to his mother by a man named Danny.

Could this also be the man in the locket?

In the book, he discovers a frayed bookmark from a bookstore, with another inscription from Danny, and beneath that a phone number and an address.

Ben reaches for the phone and dials the number, and just then lightning strikes the house, travels through the line and knocks Ben out.

He wakes up in a hospital room, and discovers he's also deaf in his hearing ear. For the first time, the world is completely quiet.

Days later, he sneaks out of the hospital with the things he treasures most, a box of things he's collected, and now the locket and book.

Then, using money his mother stashed away, Ben buys a bus ticket to New York City to try track down Daniel, first at the address, then at the bookstore.

But when both leads come up dry, he wanders into the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to get out of the heat.

There, he encounters a boy he'd run into earlier in the day who shares his love of curios and helps him hide out in the museum until he figures out what to do next.

He also stumbles upon an diorama about the wolves of his hometown that reminds him of a recurring nightmare and a curio cabinet that seems familiar.

Meanwhile, fading in and out of Ben's story is the reel-like story of Rose, a 12-year-old deaf girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1927.

Rose feels trapped in her home and exceedingly lonely.

In her bedroom, she keeps a scrapbook about a mother she barely knows, and builds a paper cityscape of New York City from views out of her window.

Forbidden to go out of her house because her father thinks it's unsafe for a deaf girl, Rose reaches out to the world in the only way she can think of.

She writes little notes asking for help, then sneaks out of the house and leaves them for someone to discover.

Rose longs to go to New York City and find her birth mother, a silent film star who divorced her father soon after she was born.

Then one day, Rose runs away to find her. But her mother is cold to her and scolding, and Rose runs off to find her grown brother, who works at the natural history museum.

There she wanders places Ben will one day go, until one day their lives become magically entwined, as the story culminates in a cinematic, rewarding finish. 

Selznick wows readers, using the same format but in a brilliantly different way.

Every picture has a precise role to play and just when we yearn to see Ben's reaction visually, having not yet seen him in a drawing, Selznick produces a closeup of his face.

I almost gasped, not by how Ben was reacting, but by how intuitive Selznick was. He knew this was the moment when readers would yearn most to finally see Ben.

That moment by itself makes this book worthy of Caldecott, but there is so much more here that is thoughtfully planned out, including the symbolism of images, the most significant beyond a drawing of a key unlocking a door, as Ben discovers the truth of his father.

Wonderstruck is a meticulously crafted book that pulls readers in like a dream. It is as much an artistic feat as a literary one and leavers readers on the last page, silently marveling at the journey that got them there.

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