There, I said it. Let the scandal ensue.
Brian Selznick, author and illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) and Wonderstruck (2011), is a great talent. His words and art combine to produce works that spark curiosity about the world: how it works, where it’s going, where it’s been, and who lives in it. The debut of his distinctive style was with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a story about a Parisian orphan boy in the 1930s who repairs an automaton that he finds in the garbage. The automaton, once repaired, draws a picture that leads Hugo on to a bigger mystery surrounding the crotchety old man who operates a toy booth in the city’s train station. (Interestingly, this was inspired by a salvaged mystery automaton at the Franklin Institute who signed the name of its maker after it was repaired– keep on dreaming, archaeologists.)
Selznick tells the story through a combination of text and pictures, which is not strictly novel or picture book, or graphic novel. There are pages of text interspersed with illustrations that reveal Hugo’s environment, or specific dramatic scenes. This format is promising, but doesn’t quite coalesce in the pages of Hugo Cabret. My main complaint is that while the subject matter is fascinating, the story felt disjointed and forced at times. A lot of time and energy is put into developing the mystery of the mechanical man and the toy booth owner, but it felt as if the resolution was glossed over and a little too pat.
Selznick refines his style with Wonderstruck, the story of two children who are separated by 50 years and a couple thousand miles. Ben’s story in 1977 Minnesota is told with text only. The story of a deaf child named Rose in 1927 New Jersey is told with pictures only. Words and text finally come together when Ben and Rose meet in New York City in 1977 and discover an unlikely connection. The reader is able to experience Rose’s world exactly as she experiences it– through visuals only. Wonderstruck has some moments of genuine suspense and tenderness that are leveraged handily by Selznick’s feel for where to interrupt text for pictures or vice versa. Wonderstruck is compelling whereas The Invention of Hugo Cabret only rose to interesting.
The illustrations in Wonderstruck were perfect, especially those depicting the Cabinets of Wonders. Cabinets of Wonders/ Cabinets of Curiosities were the early forerunners of museums. I didn’t know such things had existed in the real world before I picked the book.
This is what my dreams looked like when I was a kid! Sometimes they still look that way, but not nearly often enough. There’s all sorts of odd, unusual, and intricate objects stuffed into drawers and sitting on shelves just begging to be examined. Each of those objects has its own story that you’re probably just dying to know. How are the objects connected and how did they connect people through time and space? Selznick tells just one tiny fraction of the story possible here. Love it.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a beautiful and ground breaking book, but Selznick really makes Wonderstruck shine.