Dang, it’s hard to get a fresh reading of a new book these days. If Roger Sutton or Heavy Medal isn’t commenting on Wonderstruck before I have received it, Adam Gopnik is waxing about it in the New York Times. In my reviewing life, I normally read books that have not yet been reviewed and my impressions are my own. But Wonderstruck has been talked about for a long time and this adds to the challenge of talking about it.
So, back to the criteria I must go. Yes, it is excellent in both artistic technique and appropriateness to the story. Yes, it is for a child. Excellent pictorial interpretation of the story? Here is where I start to get a little jittery.
The definitions say, “‘A picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.”
This whole illustrated book vs. picture book issue might seem a little Picky Pete-ish, but since it is one of only ten definitions, it is an important question for the committee, and I am just trying to think like the committee here.
I do not think Wonderstruck is essentially a visual experience. Much of the story is Ben’s interior thoughts that have little or nothing to do with the illustrations. Having the two stories—one wordless and the other in words and illustrations—is an intriguing puzzle. Messing with the timeline is a pretty neat trick, and I really like that trick, but it takes away from the “collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.”
The other thing a committee will talk about is the written story, especially if it detracts in any way from the illustrations. Well, I found some of the story problematic. For instance, I thought it odd that Jamie would teach Ben finger spelling early in their friendship…and then it was clear that the finger spelling was important later when Selznick draws the eight-page tribute to Remy Charlip’s Handtalk when Ben spells “my friend” for Rose. I also found the handwritten storytelling by Rose to be a bit much. It would, I think, have been written hurriedly, with few articles and descriptive words. It was flowery and detailed in a way that would have been impossibly slow for a boy just wanting to know his story. Then there are the concerns that Gopnik presents: the Fine Boy with a Disability and the odd way Ben is able to slip unnoticed from Minnesota to New York City in 1977, a time where taking a plane was not an everyday occurrence for a young, inexperienced newly-deaf boy.
There is much to admire here and I found this fast-paced, magical story of friendship and family lost and found a delight to read. The legions of Hugo Cabret fans will not be disappointed. But, because it is not essentially a visual experience, I don’t think lightning will strike twice for Brian Selznick.