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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.

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. I enjoyed your post Robin. Interesting to consider – even though Wonderstruck has around 100 more illustrations than Hugo Cabret, it might technically be a less visual experience since one storyline is told mostly through the text. I’ve never thought about it this way, but I think you’re right, and this does seem like it would make Selznick’s latest a tougher sell for Caldecott.

  2. Okay, I’ve talked about this with several people, and many, many people have talked about it with other people before me, and I think it really needs to happen: a new award to recognize graphic novels. We could call it the Jenni&Matt Holm, or the Matt Phelan, or the Brian Selznick… etc. And Robin, it would be one more committee for which we could strive! =)

    p.s. – I agree with Travis… this is an excellent, thoughtful post, Robin. I’m waiting for my copy to come from the library. I’ve got the ARC at home, but I want to see the finished product.

  3. Please, no, Sam, the last thing we need is another award! I’d rather see award terms reconsidered and redefined to make it possible for the WHOLE book to be considered, so that a book like Wonderstruck would be eligible for either Newbery OR Caldecott, and graphic novels could be considered for either award, too.

  4. But then my dastardly plan to turn the YMAs into a 3-hour slogfest (ala the Oscars) would fail miserably! And I thought you would host, KT! (Jon Stewart would be our back-up plan.)

    Seriously, though, it is rather frustrating that graphic novels are getting let out in the cold somewhat due to the language in the criteria – do you really think there is any chance of the terms (of either Newbery or Caldecott) being adjusted to allow graphic novels to truly be in strong consideration? And sorry, Robin, I don’t mean to throw the discussion completely off-kilter!

  5. Robin, great post! and really not at all a “review”, in the usual sense, so your feedback is definitely Value Added, and appreciated for that. I’m actually in favor of some way to recognize graphic novels, since they ARE so often sidelined when it comes to awards. Now to go read this and see if i think it should be a contender for that new award when it’s created!

  6. Roger Sutton says:

    I’m getting stuck on “. . . the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” The book is NOT comprised of a series of pictures, it is comprised of pictures and text, just like most (I feel like there was a wordless winner or honor way back when) of the previous Caldecott winners and honors. But I do think the pictures and text of Wonderstruck are interdependent, at least ultimately, when the two narrative lines converge into one. So I think it’s eligible (if not worthy; see my review).

  7. I agree with Roger that the committee has to work with a rather imprecise definition of “picture book,” second only to the Python-esque definition of “distinguished” which is:
    Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    Marked by excellence in quality.
    Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    Individually distinct.

    But why do we have to contort ourselves so much around the definition of picture book? If we have to argue and make a case for a book being a picture book, is it truly a picture book? I prefer the common sense approach of Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it.” And to further paraphrase: Wonderstruck ain’t it..

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    Well, I was on the committee that decided Hugo Cabret was a picture book and I would still argue that it is one. The problem with the “know it when I see it” approach to things is that it allows people to stay stuck in their own criteria rather than having to align themselves to an exterior standard. This of course does not mean they will agree, but that the discussion will have some parameters.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Does anybody really think BILL PEET: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a picture book either? So I think there is some precedent in the canon for thinking outside the box . . .

  10. Roger Sutton says:

    Question/gossip: Is it true that the following sentence was added to the Caldecott committee manual because some on the ALSC board were distressed by Hugo’s winning: “Committee members should refer to the current terms, criteria, and definitions, including the Appendix: EXPANDED DEFINITIONS & EXAMPLES, rather than to precedent or past winners in attempting to determine eligibility”?

    The sentence is there now but I don’t know when it was added.

  11. But, Roger, you just re-wrote the official Caldecott definition of picture book that Robin had quoted when you said “It is NOT ‘comprised of a series of pictures,’ it is comprised of pictures and text.” ALSC’s definition of picture book, however wanting, is what the Caldecott Committee must work with. As a member of the committee, you can’t say, “No, they didn’t mean that, they meant ‘pictures and text.’ Aren’t you yourself bringing your own criteria to the process, and ignoring the exterior standard and parameters as defined by ALA?

    Jonathan, BILL PEET: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY is an interesting example, and I’m glad you brought it up. I think it more easily fits the definition of picture book than, say, FABLES by Arnold Lobel. In fact, it looks like a really thick Bill Peet picture book and that is part of the ingenuity of his autobiography. I can also see HUGO CABRET as fitting the definition of picture book, as defined by ALSC. (From an eligibility standpoint, the issue with HUGO would more likely be point 5 of the official definitions concerning original work, since some of the illustrations are movie stills, not the illustrator’s own artwork.)

    The ALSC Executive Committee originally served on the Newbery/Caldecott Committee, and they could make decisions about eligibility and clarify definitions as part of the process. Once they stopped being part of the selection process, the committee had to be trusted to apply the terms and criteria created by the ALSC Board, and bring any questions about eligibility to the ALSC Executive Committee for a ruling. Today this is done through a Priority Group Consultant, who serves as a liaison between committees and the Board.

    In my experience as an award committee chair and as a member of the ALSC Executive Committee, precedent has never been used as a defining tool, for the simple reason that there have been past winners that are technically ineligible, either by today’s standards or because they “slipped by.” An example is the 1924 Newbery winner, “The Dark Frigate,” which was published in its entirety in a children’s magazine before it came out as a book. There is, however, the idea floating around out there that precedence matters, which is why the ALSC Board chose to clarify that point as part of a larger project by appointing an Awards Eligibility Task Force, that reviewed and expanded on definitions and terms. The Task Force, incidentally, was necessitated by the larger issue of the global market and co-publishing, making it harder and harder to define “first published in the United States.” I know it’s not as sexy as the definition of picture book, but it accounts for the vast majority of hairy eligibility questions, especially with the Batchelder Award.

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    I’m not arguing with the criteria, merely saying that ALSC does not know how to use the word “comprise”: “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”

    (I never know how to use “comprise” myself and therefore avoid it, but I DO know that you can’t say a book is comprised of a series of pictures unless you mean it is completely wordless..)

  13. I see what you mean about wording, Roger, and I’m sure the sentence was the result of a mind-numbing wordsmithing extravaganza.

    This leads back to my original point when Sam was talking about the exclusion of graphic novels. I personally would like to see both the Newbery and Caldecott terms rewritten to be more inclusive of different kinds of books, so we wouldn’t have to waste time discussing what is eligible and could focus instead on what is excellent. But the awards aren’t about me personally. I’m not sure even ALA would have it in their power to make such sweeping changes, since both awards stem from a long-standing legal agreement between ALA and the Melcher family.

  14. Yes, I’m with you, KT. ALSC needs to grapple with this sooner rather than later, I feel. Things are speeding along out there as far as what “story” means to kids in their reading material. It isn’t just graphic novels per se, but things like last year’s Countdown which to me got its atmosphere from the documentary materials. To not be able to bring that to the table seems such a loss.

  15. YES!!!
    I’m with you, KT. ALSC needs to grapple with this sooner rather than later, I feel. Things are speeding along out there as far as what “story” means to kids in their reading material. It isn’t just graphic novels per se, but things like last year’s Countdown which to me got its atmosphere from the documentary materials, while not relevant to a Caldecott discussion — that book wasn’t able to be considered in its totality because of the current limiting criteria (which I struggled with mightily when considering Hugo Cabret the year I was on Newbery).

    At least the Caldecott criteria allows some positive consideration of the text and art whereas Newbery really doesn’t.

  16. That last sentence, fascinating. So there is a legal limitation to making any sort of changes? Wow.

  17. Not any sort of changes, Monica, but changes to the original intent of the awards would never be done lightly. As I understand it, the Newbery and Caldecott awards don’t “belong” to ALSC — they have been entrusted to ALA, who in turns delegates the administration to ALSC. ALSC has always been able to figure out the specifics of how the selection process works, to clarify definitions, and to make the actual selections. But if ALSC every wanted to change Melcher’s original intent, that is, to award the most distinguished contributions to writing and illustration in American children’s books, I believe there would be lawyers involved.

  18. bill mccullam says:

    I loved this revue. I loved the book, but, of course, it’s not a Caldecott, it will win the Newberry.
    As to pix and text, you can’t take one away; they are the art only together.

  19. Sam Bloom says:

    I just finished my second reading of this book, and I was every bit as blown away as I was the first time – possibly even more so. Robin, I can see your point about the hand-spelling, but is this – or your concerns about Ben (he got to NY on a bus, btw, not a plane) – really so problematic? Hugo Cabret won the gold with a much less successful text, if you ask me.

    You know, I was just looking at the Printz blog, and it is really frustrating that they are discussing graphic novels… and books by, among others, Mal Peet (a Brit)… and here we are at this blog and at Heavy Model, constrained by some terms that are a bit archaic. I can see by what KT said that my latter concern – that the awards go to American citizens – may be one that we just have to live with, but how much would it really change Melcher’s vision to get some language in there that makes graphic novels/illustrated books eligible? Would that really be going against Melcher’s wishes to celebrate the most distinguished contributions to writing and illustration in American literature?

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