We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
–Oscar Wilde, from Lady Windemere’s Fan
Two of our deepest longings in life, whether we acknowledge them or not, is (1) to be connected to someone or something in a world where it is too easy to feel adrift and (2) to be heard and validated through some means of communication.
Then there is the subject of communication. How do people communicate? Through a specific language, either written or spoken using an alphabet or gestures, like American Sign Language. There’s also Morse Code, Braille, semaphores, hieroglyphics, and many others. Humans have a great need and desire to communicate with one another and have, therefore, created many ways to do so. To be unable to communicate is to be isolated, even in a room full of people.
Enter the two main characters in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, Rose in 1927’s Hoboken, New Jersey, and Ben in 1977’s Gunflint, Michigan. Two twelve year olds in different cities, fifty years apart. How are they connected?
The way Brian Selznick achieves this is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Ben’s story is told through the written word. Rose’s story is told through incredibly impressive and expressive pencil drawings done by the author. The drawings leave no room for misinterpretation.
Despite their differences, both children are on a similar journey with similar challenges. Both are trying desperately to fulfill those longings for connection and communication. The pacing is excellently done using the different modes of storytelling. So excellent, in fact, that the reader is aware of the overlap in the children’s stories as it’s happening (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here.) And, while the story feels like a fantasy, there’s still a sense of it could happen.
There is a lot of potential discussion to be facilitated between teachers and students using Wonderstruck as its source. I think it would work successfully in both a classroom or a home-school setting. Amazon Prime just released the movie version a few days ago, but I believe the movie works better as an addendum to the book. There is a sweetness unique to the book that is lacking in the movie, as well as a layer of truthfulness regarding Ben, because only in the book do we hear his inner dialogue. But I will say the young actress who plays Rose in the movie is mesmerizing to watch.
Overall, I recommend Wonderstruck with confidence. I was even more impressed when I read about the amount of research Brian Selznick employed in its creation. It is an award-winning middle school book, but I think it would be entirely appropriate for younger, emotionally mature children. If a parent or teacher has specific questions before sharing it with school-aged children, please feel free to contact me or leave your question in the comments. I will answer it promptly.
P.S. A 55-page summary and study guide of Wonderstruck is also available on Amazon, but I have not read it.