Thursday, January 19, 2012


In 2007 the children's literature world was bowled over by Brian Selznick's THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. It was a 500+ page, groundbreaking novel, telling its story in equal parts text and illustrations. I didn't get around to reading the book until after it won the Caldecott Medal, the following year. I found it sorely overrated. With all the hype, I expected more out of the story behind the engaging design. Now four years later, Selznick has returned to the format that made him an overnight sensation, with his latest novel WONDERSTRUCK. Fresh off of Martin Scorsese turning HUGO into a masterpiece, was Selznick looking to cash in?

WONDERSTRUCK tells two stories, one taking place in the late 1970s with words and the other taking place in the late 1920s with pictures. In Gunflint, MN 1977, Ben gets curious about his nonexistent father after his mother dies in a car accident. He's struck by lightning through a telephone, wakes up in a hospital bed with an epiphany, hops a bus to New York City and does some investigating, Basil E. Frankweiler style. Ben has difficulty hearing. In New York City 1927, Rose appears to be trapped, confined to her house by her father with the New York City skyline framed in her bedroom window. She dreams of escaping to the city and finding her favorite silent movie star. Rose is deaf.

Like HUGO CABRET, this book left me with mixed feelings. I devoured the book in two days time, which is quite the feat for this busy teacher. So obviously I was engaged and interested in the story. However I couldn't help rolling my eyes throughout and when I finally turned the book's final page, I wasn't sure I liked any of what I had just read. Like HUGO CABRET, I felt that the format tricked readers into thinking "epic", when the story was really anything but. Too many inconsistencies in Ben's story and too many unanswered questions in Rose's.

In Ben's half of the story, too many things happen that just flat out don't ring true. Too many magical coincidences occur and we're supposed to believe them, why? Because Ben is struck by lightning through the phone? Is this supposed to let us know we have to suspend our disbelief? The story isn't really "magical". It's about a boy's search for family. Forget the fact that Ben was able to connect the dots of his past by merely looking at a couple random items in his mother's bedroom. Forget the fact that Ben, who cannot hear, is able to slip out of his hospital room at night and board a bus for New York City successfully. This leap coming from a somewhat sheltered child who's idea of a dream vacation was to visit Duluth, MN a mere few hours south of Gunflint. I could forget about those inconsistencies if that's all there really was. What really irked me about Ben's story, the final straw, was the way he was able to function in New York City.

In THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, which Selznick is obviously channeling here, the main characters lived close to the city. They were familiar with the city. They had been to the museum before. It made it all absurd, but believable. The same cannot be said for WONDERSTRUCK. Ben, who I remind you cannot hear, just hops off the bus in New York City and in a matter of minutes, he's found he's way to the exact building he was looking for. Seamlessly. No struggles. When he reaches a dead end, he follows up on another clue and once again, finds his way without difficulty. By the time he reaches the museum and decides to stay, I was so infuriated, I stopped caring. And we had really just gotten to know Ben. Very little development of character.

When the two stories converge, it's not so much a surprise as it is a plot device. And one that's been done better before. When we find out who Rose really is, it's told in a series of illustrations, that blend the two narratives together. As I said, it's not a surprise, but it's well done. However then, instead of answering Ben's questions about his father, Rose takes him on a trip across the city, telling this boy she's just met the entire story of her life, before talking about his father! Now I realize, there ended up being a good reason that she took Ben where she took him, but I couldn't help but feel that Rose's revelations in this section of the book were more for the reader's benefit than Ben's. It was Selznick's only opportunity to answer any remaining questions about Rose, whether the timing made any sense or not.

The film adaptation of HUGO CABRET may be destined for Oscar buzz, but I'm afraid the best thing WONDERSTRUCK has going for it is a Lifetime Original Movie. The characters are thinly drawn, based primarily on their deafness, and the plot is far too contrived. If it wasn't for the incredible format of the book, I'm not sure what kind of reception a story with this many holes would receive. Is it easy to forgive the book because of Selznick's talent of balancing a story between pictures and words?

Not for me.

Final Grade: C+

1 comment:

  1. I don't get the appeal of these, either. Fabulous pictures, so-so story. Makes me think even more that when books have pictures, students have a decided tendency to ignore tha words!