So many wonderful themes come together in Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, that it’s impossible to touch on them all. Perhaps the theme that speaks most to children, however, is the idea of collecting things. We all did it (and likely still do). Stamps, rocks, shells, dolls, Matchbox cars. Ben Wilson, whose story Selznick tells in words, has a box with a wolf on it, in which he keeps the things he collects. Rose Kincaid, whose story unfolds in images, looks out of the window of her house in Hoboken and creates and arranges miniature models of the buildings across the Hudson River. They are both collectors. Their paths lead them both to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, one of the greatest collections in the world.
I got to hear Brian Selznick talk about his work on Wonderstruck earlier this week, and he said that several books for children had influenced him. One is Pam Conrad’s My Daniel, about a brother and sister who discover dinosaur fossils near their farm in Nebraska, and their dinosaur makes it to the American Museum of Natural History. Another is Conrad’s book Call Me Ahnighito, told from the point of view of the meteorite that’s discovered on the North Pole in 1897 and now resides in that same museum—and Ahnighito figures prominently in Ben and Rose’s story in Wonderstruck.
And of course, Selznick said, you can’t write a book set in a museum without paying homage to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by Elaine (E.L.) Konigsburg. He does that several times in his book, including the fact that he named Ben Wilson’s mother Elaine.
One of Selznick’s favorite books as a child was The Borrowers. The Clock family—Pod, Homily, and their daughter Arrietty—“collected” things from “human beans” and repurposed everyday household objects into clothes and furniture. As a child, Brian also loved to collect tiny things, he says. One of the best moments, early in Selznick's novel, is when Ben finds a book called “Wonderstruck” that gives him a name for what he loves to do: curator. “In a way, anyone who collects things in the privacy of his own home is a curator,” the book says.
There’s a picture book I adore that also captures this passion for collecting. In Ben’s story there’s a “cabinet of wonders.” In Sergio Ruzzier’s picture book, it’s The Room of Wonders. “Pius Pelosi was a pack rat, and he collected things,” the story begins. Pius finds a pebble he loves and his collection expands from there. He creates a compartment for each of the objects he selects, and visitors travel from everywhere to see his room of wonders and hear his stories.
Brian Selznick says that the impulse to collect and organize things is part of being human. To curate is to organize, and that helps us make sense of our world. He believes that is why we love museums, because they allow us to see where and how we fit into the world. And that feeling of knowing we are part of something much larger fills us with wonder.