Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. 2011. Scholastic Press.

Genre: Author’s own blend of novel and graphic novel, or as he calls it, “A Novel in Words and Pictures.”

A few other titles by the author (just in case you are curious):

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Houdini Box

The Boy of a Thousand Faces

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Brian Selznick

Recommended ages:

Grades 4-6 as the primary audience but the art and the author’s unique approach will appeal to older students and adults, as well.

Summary

Wonderstruck is actually the intertwining of two stories, told in alternating moments, one using only words and the other solely through Selznick’s amazing black and white drawings. Young Ben’s story begins in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977, shortly after the accidental death of his mother. Young Rose’s story starts in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1927. Though separated by fifty years, the lives of these two characters are destined to cross as both Ben and Rose set out on difficult journeys to find family, friendship, and the answers to questions about their pasts and futures. Each character is drawn to New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, a real place filled to the rafters with all sorts of wonders of the natural world. (The book is, in many ways, a tribute to AMNH and museums large or small everywhere.)  Adding to the challenges facing Ben and Rose is the fact that each character is deaf. Ben’s condition is recent, resulting from a lightning strike just after his mother’s death. Rose’s deafness, hinted at through picture clues (and explained later in the book), occurred at birth. The lives and stories of these two characters eventually converge; pictures and words are blended as the emotional climactic scenes are revealed. There’s something almost poetic in Selznick’s spare, heartfelt words and cinematic in his drawings as you turn the pages, moving in for important close-ups or pulling back for eye-popping wide shots.

Reading this book (and The Invention of Hugo Cabret) was a different physical experience for me—different than other picture books, graphic novels, or novels with illustrations. I found myself adjusting my hold on the book (and even the way I was sitting) as the story alternated between the “word” pages of Ben’s story and Rose’s “picture” pages. Without thinking about it, I was changing positions to make sure I was immersed properly in the words, and then viewing the pictures from the best vantage point—I didn’t want to miss a thing. The book weighs in at over 600 pages, but a large percentage of these are illustrations (full page, across the fold) that you naturally want to linger over—explaining my physical responses/body adjustments to the word and picture stories. The way I read a Chris Van Allsburg book is the most comparable experience to this I can think of, but Brian Selznick really involves me as a reader at a new level. I guess I could say that I am “wonderstruck” about Wonderstruck. Hey, I just did.

(Note: I’m not an e-reader yet, but I have my doubts about how this book will work as an e-read. Maybe some of you can help me out from your e-reading experiences and comment on this.)

In the Classroom

  • I think using a document camera may be the best way to share this book properly with your students. Seeing these pictures projected on a screen will be a powerful experience for your students and can only add to the cinematic qualities they suggest.
  • Be sure to share the Acknowledgements (pages 630-634) and the Selected Bibliography (pages 635-637). These oft-neglected sections may be ones that students might be tempted to skip if reading the book independently. One clear benefit for students from spending some time with these pages is the revelation that writing a book like this involves lots of people and research, especially if you want to get it right. You’ve got to share your writing from the beginning and absorb all the questions and comments from willing readers to help you make revisions.
  • This book suggests an opportunity to learn/research more about being deaf and Deaf culture. Based on his background work for this book, Selznick clarifies for readers in his acknowledgements, “…deaf with a lowercase d refers to the condition of being deaf, while Deaf with a capital D refers to the culture.” He highlights the advent of sound technology in films as a key moment for deaf people—before “talking” pictures, going to the movies was something all could enjoy. Students may even want to watch an old silent movie and write about the experience.
  • Both the music and lyrics of David Bowie’s song Space Oddity (“This is ground control to Major Tom…” Any bells ringing?), were important to Ben and his mother (check out pages 24-25 for one of the first references). Words and music can connect us to people and specific moments or times in our lives. What music and lyrics are important to you, your students, or possibly your whole class? How are song lyrics like poetry?
  • Ben carries a wooden box with him as he travels from Gunflint Lake to New York City. Inside, the box is separated into sections by cardboard dividers. In this box, Ben keeps important objects he has collected, things that others might think were meaningless bits of junk. What do you or your students save and collect? Writing about items in their collections is a great way for students to focus on the trait of ideas, voice, and word choice. When you write about things you know and care about, your voice comes through as you zoom in on what’s important, choosing the just-right words to help readers see and feel your ideas.
  • On pages 97-99 and 108-109, Ben learns about Cabinets of Wonder, the earliest forms of museums, and what it means to be a curator of a museum.   Asking students to think of themselves as curators by creating personal museums/cabinets of wonders would be a fun project that could cross curriculum lines—student museums could be focused on a science, math or social studies topic. Students could create exhibit cards to entice and inform “readers,” or a museum brochure that includes both descriptions and visuals of their collections. Student curators could also be asked to reflect in writing on their choices—why specific objects were included—to demonstrate/provide evidence of learning.
  • Something just popped into my head that I didn’t notice the first time through the book. Look closely again at pages 97-99 and 108-109 to see what Brian Selznick has to say about museums and curators. As described and defined by the author, both of these provide a great metaphor for all six writing traits and for the important connection between student writers and their readers. (Wow! I’m surprised this didn’t jump out at me the first time throughJ.)
  • Mr. Selznick tips his hat to E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, (a very important book from my childhood—I actually thought about running away to New York to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art!) by filling his story and pictures with references to this classic. If you or your students are unfamiliar with the book, it would be a great companion read aloud and give you a fun excuse to reread Wonderstruck, to find each reference.
  • As always, these are just a few of the ways that this book could be used in your classroom with your young writers. Please, share with us the creative ideas that you come up with as you share Wonderstruck.
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