How to Teach Wonderstruck

Connecting two narratives through prose and pictures, Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck is the perfect novel to inspire conversation, creativity, and curiosity in readers of all ages. In words, we learn the story of Ben, a lonely boy searching for a father he has never met. In pictures, we see the story of Rose, beginning with her youth in the 1920s to her later years in 1970s New York City. Wonderstruck touches on the enduring themes of the passage of time, the importance of family bonds, and the challenge of communication without words. Selznick's descriptive language and detailed illustrations will keep even the most reluctant readers engaged in the story.

Both Ben and Rose are deaf, a trait that manifests in clever ways throughout the novel. While Ben became fully deaf because of an accident, Rose was born without the ability to hear. Students should discuss the different ways deafness affects the main characters as the novel progresses and comment on how communication between characters is depicted throughout the narrative.

Some students may be unfamiliar with the depictions of museum culture prevalent in Selznick's book. A brief lesson about different aspects of history museums, including the importance of dioramas, panoramas, and "cabinets of wonder," will give students greater context about the setting of the novel. In addition, Wonderstruck references real-world locations and events, such as the Queens Museum of Art, the 1964 New York World's Fair, and the New York City Blackout of 1977. For enriched classroom discussion, it may be helpful for students to research these topics and draw meaningful connections between these references and the main characters.

Summary

The story begins with Ben, a young boy living with his aunt and uncle in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota during the 1970s. With the sudden passing of his mother and no memory of his father, Ben feels alone and without a purpose. After a bizarre lightning strike during a terrible storm renders him deaf, Ben sets out on his own to search for his mysterious father, travelling all the way to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Meanwhile, in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1928, a deaf girl named Rose longs to leave the confines of her home. In an act of defiance, Rose boards a ferry to New York City and goes to find her absent mother, the silent-film actress Lillian Mayhew. In the vast expanse of the city, Ben and Rose meet in an unlikely way, discovering that both of their struggles and dreams span across a generation.

Objectives for Teaching Wonderstruck

  • Discuss how the novel's visual format helps influence the story's interpretation.
  • Draw comparisons between Ben's museum box and the Cabinet of Wonders exhibit.
  • Identify literary devices used in the novel, such as allusion, motif, and parallelism.
  • Compare and contrast how deafness affects Ben and Rose.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Conflict
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Juxtaposition
  • Motif
  • Parallelism
  • Point of view
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Time — Ben and Rose, though growing up during different periods, share similarities that connect each other despite the passage of time.
  • Family — Ben and Rose have complex relationships with their families; Rose craves the attention of her indifferent mother, while Ben desperately wants his own mother back in his life.
  • Communication — Rose was born deaf, and Ben must adapt to his sudden loss of hearing after the lightning strike. Both characters find new ways to interact with the world around them despite their deafness.

Key Facts

  • Length: 608 pages
  • Publication Date: 2011
  • Lexile Measure: 830
  • Recommended Grade Band: 5 – 9

Awards

  • A Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Book of 2011
  • A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2011
  • #1 New York Times Bestseller (2011)
  • Schneider Family Book Award Winner (2012)

Movies

A Wonderstruck film adaptation is currently in production, with a release slated for 2017. Directed by Todd Haynes, the movie will star Julianne Moore as Older Rose and Oakes Fegley as Ben.

Your students will love:

  • The unconventional use of words and pictures throughout the book.
  • The vivid descriptions of New York City during the 1920s and 1970s.

Students may have problems with:

  • Relating to deaf culture.
  • Descriptions of character loss, death, and grief.

Available from Prestwick House:

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