Review: Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

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Wonderstruck is wonderful. It is, to date, the most creative and ambitious novel about the d/Deaf experience in America I’ve ever come across.

Cover for WonderstruckSelznick published The Invention of Hugo Cabret in 2007, winning the Caldecott Medal and achieving a major movie adaptation; years later, Selznick came back with Wonderstruck, which seems somehow even deeper and more multilayered.

What makes it different from other books about the d/Deaf experience written by hearing authors? Simply this: Selznick approached the project not as a writer who wanted to write about characters with disabilities, but as a writer delving into an historical novel about Deaf Culture and language. This is what makes the book so enjoyable and authentic.

An overview: A boy named Ben longs for the father he has never known. A girl named Rose dreams of a mysterious actress whose life she chronicles in a scrapbook. When Ben discovers a puzzling clue in his mother’s room, and Rose reads an enticing headline in the newspaper, both children set out alone on desperate quests to New York City to find what they are missing.

Ben’s story, set in 1977, is told mostly via prose, while Rose’s story, set fifty years earlier, is told mostly via pictures. The two stories weave back and forth masterfully before ultimately coming together.

Rose has been deaf for as long as she can remember. As a child, she communicates through writing, and, later, with American Sign Language (ASL) and occasional oral speech and lip-reading. Ben grew up deaf in one ear before being completely deafened through a bizarre accident (lightning struck the telephone he was holding to his “good” ear) just before his story begins. He uses oral speech and other people communicate with him through writing. By the end of the book, Ben begins to learn fingerspelling and ASL.

I would say the book’s depiction of d/Deaf history and language is very accurate, with a few slight flaws.

Although Ben seems to be the more prominent of the two characters in the book, it is Rose’s story, set in 1927, that touched me more deeply. There is something so groundbreaking about seeing a young d/Deaf girl’s life story told only in expressive drawings that are not static but rather move along quickly, like a flip book or a silent movie reel.

Rose escapes her house because she does not want to deal with her tutor who teaches her oral speech. The tutor’s textbook about the parts of the mouth used for speech and lip-reading is painfully familiar to older d/Deaf readers. Rose’s flight from home represents centuries of d/Deaf people’s desires to free themselves from forced oralism, and to claim a language and safe place of their own. She runs to a theater in NYC to see her absent mother, actress Lillian Mayhew; her subsequent flight from that place, too, is representative of d/Deaf children’s inability (to this day) to communicate meaningfully with their parents—though Rose does find an ally in her brother Walter, who learns to sign with her.

The trajectory of Rose’s life is ultimately hopeful. She becomes an accomplished d/Deaf adult who is able to reach out to a Deaf child (Ben) who faces struggles in modern society similar to her own.

Ben’s story is also remarkable. Certain elements, mainly concerning Ben’s attempts to communicate, didn’t exactly ring true to me. Ben’s oral speech doesn’t appear to be affected by his sudden total deafness—no one seems to realize he’s deaf when he opens his mouth to speak.

Ben also lets people talk to him for extended periods of time without explaining that he’s d/Deaf. I wondered, if his oral speech is clear, why he doesn’t say he’s deaf. I appreciate that Selznick is showing readers how confusing and frustrating it is when hearing people unknowingly use oral speech with d/Deaf people, but Ben is a survivor (of the telephone accident and his mother’s death)—I would expect him to more quickly develop coping skills.

There are also issues with the written communications. When young Rose writes notes to communicate with non-signers—such as the fraught exchange with her mother—they are necessarily brief. When Ben meets a young hearing friend (Jamie) behind-the-scenes in the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, they talk by writing back and forth.

That’s realistic, but anyone who has done the same thing in real life knows that you can’t keep up the conversation in long, English prose sentences. Even if you are patient (and that’s a necessary virtue for this form of communication) you start to abbreviate quickly. Then there is the issue of ASL having a different sentence structure from English.

That wouldn’t affect Jamie’s written communications, because he doesn’t know ASL. But when older Rose tells young Ben her life story, she practically writes a book. Her story is well thought out (she attends a residential school that teaches oralism in the classroom and ASL among her peers) and the exposition is necessary, and it is not unrealistic that Rose would write perfect English, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it could have been done in a more creative way.

In The Deaf Poet’s Society: an online journal of disability literature, Issue 1: August 2016, Raymond Luczak, the renowned Deaf gay writer and poet, includes this author’s note before his prose piece, “Neighbors.”

What you are about to read may sound odd and unusual, perhaps a bit incoherent. Actually, the story is told in American Sign Language, or ASL gloss. What does that mean? Simply put, it is not a translation. ASL is not English on the hands; like any other foreign language, ASL has its own grammar, vocabulary, idioms, and so on. What you are about to read is, I hope, a clear delineation of how ASL can be structured sentence-wise.

The first six lines of “Neighbors”:

House-house-house that-way neighbors new move-there. These-two move i-n eight-nine months ago, not sure exact when, eight-nine-months approximately. First meet, me-think okay-okay. Both hearing, facial-expression-extreme-show-teeth-for-lipreading not, nice. Themselves dress-fancy not. Man pants s-w-e-a-t-pants purple, T-shirt purple same, but strange what?

I am not faulting Selznick for not glossing Rose’s written communications, or even including English grammar errors, but I’d like to see books for young readers that reflect the kind of ASL-English mash-up that I often see (and participate in) in social media d/Deaf communication, if only because it is precisely this creative written English that keeps the “illiterate” and even “dumb” labels on native signers. I have seen innocent exchanges cruelly mocked by outsiders and I have been complimented because I don’t (always) write in Pidgin English.

(Speaking of the familiar “deaf and dumb” label, Selznick’s choice of the book title, Wonderstruck, can certainly be seen as a clever, deliberate subversion of the common term, “dumbstruck.”)

Selznick has carefully worked out the challenges that young Rose and Ben would face in their eras. For example, going to the movies was a collective experience for Americans, including the d/Deaf, during the silent period. Rose is visibly distraught when she sees a poster announcing the exciting new talking pictures.

The facial expressions in Selznick’s peerless illustrations are cues (as they are in real life) for the d/Deaf to understand context. Rose’s eyes are translucent pools, absorbing the stress around her, and reflecting her hopes and fears. There is a memorable two-page profile of Lillian Mayhew in stage costume; her anger and the rejection of her daughter are written cruelly on her face.

Wonderstruck is such a beautiful story that one can suspend disbelief with minor issues. The entire book is an amazing act of sympathetic imagination on behalf of author/illustrator Brian Selznick.

But Selznick didn’t just use his unique imagination; he did extensive research to create Wonderstruck.

There is another aspect to Selznick’s understanding of the material. In 2015, Selznick delivered the 46th Annual May Arbuthnot Honor lecture. In it, he referred to the “queerness of being deaf.” Selznick saw a similarity between his experiences as a young gay man alienated from Queer community and history, and the experiences of many deaf people who grow up in hearing families and must survive isolation to seek out Deaf Culture and history. He referenced Andrew Solomon’s theory of “horizontal identities”—which are identities linked to others outside the families and communities of our childhoods. Growing up both d/Deaf and lesbian, I find this concept fascinating, and worthy of an essay in itself.*

Selznick’s Wonderstruck is a gift that keeps on giving. In May 2015, it was announced that acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes would direct an adaptation of the book, with a screenplay by Selznick, to release in 2017.

I was delighted to see a casting call for young Rose, specifying that the actress must be d/Deaf or Hard of Hearing (HOH). A d/Deaf actress from Utah, Millicent Simmonds, was hired. An entertainment news source added: “This section of the narrative [young Rose’s story]will see an unprecedented number of deaf actors in roles that would normally go to hearing actors.”

It’s hard to add to that! Wonderstruck, which won the ALA Schneider Family Book Award in 2012, has set the bar very high for hearing children’s book writers as well as publishers of youth literature. The same can be said about Cece Bell’s El Deafo.

I’ve been waiting my whole lifetime for these books. Selznick and Bell used, respectively, Deaf Culture resources and personal life experiences to create their narratives.

I’d like to say we can’t possibly go back from here to ill-informed, inspiration porn stories about the hardship of deafness and the miracle of hearing for the first time. Hearing authors may now become conscious of the trope of one-dimensional d/Deaf friends and siblings, especially when the main characters are praised for their patience and understanding regarding deafness and/or save the day for d/Deaf people. I hope I’m proved right.

 

*In fact, Andrew Solomon has written a book about it. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Scribner, 2012)



About Author

Ann Clare Le Zotte

Ann Clare Le Zotte is a white Deaf author. Her previous publications include T4: A Novel in Verse (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). She is the recipient of two Isabella Gardner Fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She lives with her family in Gainesville, Florida. She works at a public library, where she also teaches ASL classes and educates school groups about disability awareness.

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4 Comments

  1. It is worth noting that in the movie, hearing actor Julianne Moore will play the deaf character Rose when the character is older. I have seen some early criticism of this, and it will likely become an issue when the movie comes out.

    • I thought the same thing when I saw the casting. Moore is a Haynes regular, and maybe her name helped get the film financed. I certainly would like to see more all-Deaf productions like THE HAMMER (2010). Thanks for commenting!

  2. I loved this book! One thing I thought was very cool, at least from my perspective, was Rose’s story, as you mentioned felt like a silent movie. The black and white illustrations, without any text, helped people such as myself get in the shoes of Rose’s sensory experience, it was like a silent movie, which was very cool.

    My biggest problem with the book isn’t from a literary perspective, but from a librarian one. It is SO thick that it is very tough to convince customers to check it out. I know that is due to half the book being illustrations, but I can see customer’s begin to tune me out when I pick such a thick book up to recommend. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Jake,

      I completely understand your concern! I understand the young readers who are intimidated by the book’s size too. I was a delayed reader. It can be a hard sell. When doing reader’s advisory, I like to go into the stacks and pull books–giving the 60 second book talk. With the Selznick tomes, I’ll flip through the book–or ask them to “read” the first ten pages. For young readers who mostly read graphic novels, I’ll tell them they don’t have to read the words, but can follow the images. Hoping that they’ll be drawn into the whole book. There is a great deal of satisfaction if a young reader can finish this book, especially if they are a reluctant or delayed reader.

      Because I am Deaf, a native signer, that holds a certain fascination for our regular patrons in the children’s room. That creates a good segue for recommending WONDERSTRUCK and EL DEAFO. When kids read disability titles that I don’t quite care for, like WONDER, I really work hard to get them to pick up the better stuff.

      I’m sure Selznick would love to hear how Rose’s wordless story pulled you in. I’m grateful that it created in you understanding and sympathy for the d/Deaf experience. Good luck pitching it to your patrons.

      Thanks for responding!

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