The Invention of Hugo Cabret (my review) was a paradigm shattering book. Especially once it won the Caldecott. I admit that I had my doubts about Wonderstruck. I thought it highly possible it was going to just be another Hugo without the innovative edge. Which would still have made it a good book because Selznick is a talented man. Then the hype around it grew and grew and so did my wariness. I was excited, but it was a qualified excitement. Betsy at Fuse 8 said in her review before the book's release that it was a book that lived up to its hype which abated my wariness some. Now that I've read it, I completely agree with her. Wonderstruck is not just another Hugo. It has a similar style but is a different concept. And in my opinion it is a better book.
Set fifty years apart, two independent stories—Ben's told in words and 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. Ever since his mom died, Ben feels lost. At home with her father, Rose feels alone. He is searching for someone, but he is not sure who. She is searching for something, but she is not sure what. When Ben finds a mysterious clue hidden in his mom's room, When a tempting opportunity presents itself to Rose. Both children risk everything to find what's missing.
The stories of Rose and Ben parallel each other and coincide even with a difference of 50 years. The book begins with Ben and the prose and then switches to Rose and the art. They then switch back and forth for the rest of the story. Where Selznick put the transitions between the two was masterfully strategic. Assuming his strategy was to keep the reader turning the pages, not wanting to put the book down because it was essential to know what was going to happen next. If that was the strategy it worked brilliantly on me.
Both stories are highly emotive. Selznick's pictures have always been good for this, but in this book his prose is creating and setting the mood as well. The words are as beautifully descriptive as the pictures and convey Ben's loneliness, searching, panic, loss and wonder just as well as the pictures of Rose do. I actually thought that, at times, the prose did it better. Ben was the character I connected with and felt for more. Here is just one of the passages that made an impression (This is just after Ben has arrived in NY):
"Ben looked around in astonishment. Taking in all the colors and smells and movements, he felt like he'd fallen over the edge of a waterfall. He was sure he had never seen this many people in his enter life on Gunflint Lake. Everyone everywhere seemed to be a different color, as if the cover of his social studies textbook had come to life around him."
Notice that it says "colors and smells and movements", not sound. That is because Ben is deaf, as is Rose. So their pictures and words are conveying more than just story, they are conveying an experience.
There is so much to explore in the book. It is about the wonder to be found in the world and how this wonder is often captured in museums. There is the wonder that is found in relationships of all kinds. There is the wonder that comes from striking out and finding your own way in the world. There is the wonder that comes from finding your way home, even if it is not to the same one. Unlike my use of the word wonder here, none of it is overdone or forced.
There has been much talk (see this post at Heavy Medal and this one at Calling Caldecott as examples) of how Selznick may have confounded the award committees for this year. I do think it will be sad if some he does not get some accolade for what he has done here. Although, this seems kind of trite, but I suppose the greatest accolades an author can receive is for people to read and appreciate his work. So go. Read and appreciate.