Wonderstruck: A Review

Wonderstruck

Several years ago, I inherited a children’s literature course from a teacher who was retiring. To make a long story short, she was generous enough to provide her syllabus since I had nothing, nada, zilch in the way of course prep. Scanning the reading list, I noticed Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and I was so stoked for the semester.

Selznick visited Memphis my last year in grad school, and I missed the opportunity to see him (darn you, stupid job). I always regretted not being able to hear him read and speak because I admire his work so much.

When he released Wonderstruck in 2011, I immediately added it to my TBR list, no questions asked. Now, here we are in 2014, and it was finally at the top of my stack.

Selznick’s books are nothing if not behemoths, but their heft is well worth the extra forearm strength it takes to tote them around.

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The books’ content is mostly composed of beautifully crafted illustrations done with pencil on watercolor paper (as per the frontispiece). Selznick’s ability to manipulate light and shadow in his work is helpful to his intended audience, as light and shadow often guide the reader’s attention when it might otherwise have been lost. He also has the uncanny ability to use his characters’ eyes to radiate emotions as powerfully as real people. My favorite illustration in Wonderstruck is a depiction of Rose’s mother, who is angry that her deaf daughter has come, unaccompanied, to visit her in the city. The mother’s back is turned away from the reader in the illustration, but we are able to see her angry reflection in the mirror on her dressing table. Masterful!

Ben’s story in Wonderstruck felt very familiar to me, as I couldn’t help comparing his story to Hugo’s. There are quite a few similar elements: a young boy searching for his place in the world, trying to connect himself to family members who are no longer present, a rediscovered familial connection that might have been lost if the main characters had behaved as their guardians wished them to, a benevolent friend who provides information without realizing it and without whom the connections would never have been made.

While some readers may find the repetition story elements to be tiresome, I think the technique works really well in Selznick’s work. Children who love The Invention of Hugo Cabret will find the themes reinforced in Wonderstruck, and sometimes reinforcement acts as the equivalent of validation.

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The coolest thing about Selznick’s books (depending on who you ask and on what end of the eBook vs. pBook spectrum they’re on) is that he doesn’t make his books available electronically. That’s right. You can’t download Hugo or Wonderstruck. Read more about that here. When you consider that the illustrations make up the biggest part of both books, it makes sense for the author/illustrator to be biased towards an actual physical product. As a lover of both e- and pBooks, I find it sort of comforting that there are authors who are willing to hold out in favor of ink and paper (or, in this case, pencil and paper), and there is something intrinsically satisfying about watching a child’s self-esteem blossom after realizing he can finish the whole thing on his own.

So far I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read of Selznick’s. The stories and plot lines are tightly woven, and he doesn’t allow the reader to get distracted, an important quality in a text intended for children. His illustrations are more expressive than many similar books in the genre, and he provides his readers, both young and old, with a sense of comfort, of knowing that someway, somehow, we all belong, and we all have a purpose, accomplishing not just the goal of children’s literature but of capital-L Literature as well.

Have you read The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Wonderstruck? What did you think?

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Novel Thoughts: Death Cloud by Andrew Lane

Sherlock Holmes is one of Literature’s most revered characters. Generation upon generation has found in him a brainy hero, someone who manages to win without employing might and strength. No, Sherlock runs on brain power, which is arguably his most endearing quality. Embraced by both the film and television industries both here and abroad, Sherlock has maintained a cultural presence unique unto himself.

Which is precisely why Andrew Lane’s young adult novel Death Cloud inspires reluctance. Lane’s novel approaches Sherlock from the aspect of childhood. For years readers have wondered what Sherlock must have been like as a boy, and Lane has attempted to answer the quandary. He has done remarkably well, considering that we are never given any indication as to what childhood events shaped our beloved Sherlock.

All reluctance aside, Death Cloud is quite the captivating novel, particularly for its intended audience. Lane has paid specific attention to detail regarding the time period within which he is working, down to the specifics regarding how people brushed their teeth in those days (“[Sherlock] splashed his face, brushed his teeth with a chalky powder flavoured with cinnamon that he sprinkled on his bone-handled hog’s bristle toothbrush, and quickly dressed.”) He has also managed to preserve that very traditional sense of class and social propriety (“The kids there had tended to avoid the house, belonging as it did the the people they thought of as their social superiors, “the landed gentry,” and Sherlock had spent most of his time alone.”) Sherlock’s friendship with both Matty and Virginia in the book serves to illuminate the social structures in place during what would have been the years of Sherlock’s childhood. Lane’s inclusion of Amyus Crowe also delineates the difference between social mores in England and social mores in America.

Lane attributes the development of Sherlock’s powers of deduction in part to both Mycroft Holmes and Amyus Crowe, an attribution many veteran readers of the Sherlock Holmes collection may find disappointing. With these two instructors, Sherlock’s ability to think on his feet and to mentally and logically move through a problem are quickly honed in this first novel of what is to be a series. Whether or not readers agree with the technique, it is reassuring for younger readers to know that Sherlock was not born brilliant, that it took years of practice and incidents to sharpen his wit and intellect.

The action in Death Cloud is captivating enough for younger readers; however, more mature readers will find the action sequences tedious. Sure, they are filled with anticipation, but while some readers anticipate the outcome of the scene, others anticipate the scene’s ending. Towards the end of the novel, readers, both younger and more mature, may find themselves weary of Sherlock’s penchant for falling into the same kinds of traps.

Despite its (at times) tedious nature, the entertainment to be found in Death Cloud will not disappoint its reader. Lane’s construction of Sherlock’s childhood will make the character both more relatable and more fascinating for whatever reader comes his way.

What’s New?: The Newbery

Every year around this time we start rolling out red carpets and handing out award trophies. We dole out accolades with adoration and commendation, both genuine and feigned. We watch with rapt attention to see who is wearing the best dress. And the worst. We throw themed parties and make bets with friends regarding the outcome of various award ceremonies. We indulge ourselves in the notion that watching and reading and discussing these events actually makes us a part of them.

But not all awards this season exist purely for the recognition of the silver screen. Every year around this time, the American Library Association (ALA) lends its seal of approval to the most notable children’s books of the year. In between the excitement that was the Golden Globes and the anticipation leading up to the Oscars, the ALA inserts its voice into mainstream media culture to remind us all that there is still something to be said about literature for children. That it is indeed important for us to remember and recognize the authors and illustrators who continually produce fodder for growing imaginations.

Yesterday, the winners of the prestigious awards were announced. There was no red carpet. There were no camera crews or flash photographers. There were no E! programs devoted to them. No trophies. The winning books have nothing more than a small foil seal on their covers. But that seal is proof that the tradition of recognition and acclaim is still alive and well in both the publishing world and in the world of children’s literature.

Since 1922, the ALA has been awarding the Newbery Medal to an outstanding work of literature for children written by an American author, published in an American publishing house in English. It became the first official award for children’s literature in the world, and each winner carries the heft of that prestige. Despite the growth of technology, children’s literature has come into its own as a genre worthy of recognition and study. Since the inception of the Newbery award, the evolution of Literature in general (particularly children’s literature) has created the need for various other awards, marking the journey of American culture and the culture of childhood.

For more information about the ALA and other children’s literature awards, click here. For more information about this year’s Newbery winner, stay tuned for this week’s Novel Thoughts post.