My good friend and fellow reader Sue McIntyre reviews Wonderstruck here and asks the question about both the new book and the Invention of Hugh Cabret: how responsible is it for books to propose that kids could run away or go off on their own like that and survive perfectly well when the worlds they inhabit aren’t exactly fantasy.
I remember worrying about the same thing many years ago when I gave a friend’s nine-year-old a copy of The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Was I encouraging her to run away from home? In the end, I decided the book had been read by millions of children and none I’d heard of had since run off to the Met, so we were probably safe.
Since then both my kids have loved Frankweiler’s book (we took our own Frankweiler inspired tour of the Met a few years back and it was magical) as well as books like The Boxcar Children and Bud Not Buddy, where kids in a seemingly realistic world nonetheless manage to create a child-based kingdom sans adults. These books follow a very important children’s book creed, albeit in the extreme: Children must be at the center of children’s stories, solving their own problems. I think it give children a sense of power in a world in which they normally have very little and a sense of exhileration. At least, I remember having those feelings when I read Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and the Boxcar Children as a child. In fact, I spent a lot of time in my closet back then, pretending it was my own little boxcar, complete with an imaginary chipped pink cup. I seemed to understand–I think most children do–that these books were in fact, a kind of fantasy wrapped in reality that we weren’t intended to follow.
What do you think?
4 responses to “Another take on Wonderstruck. . .”
Thanks for linking folks to my comments, Stephanie. A bit of clarification:
I guess I’m not so worried about “how responsible is it for books to propose that kids could run away” as I am interested in the conversations made possible by such books. So many great Tween and Teen books are based on the premise of kids fending for themselves and solving pretty significant problems–as a result of running away or chancing into a situation that takes them somewhere else. And, I read enough fantasy as a kid myself not to be concerned about kids not being able to distinguish real life from reality.
What really interests me is whether these escapades are at all different when they happen in modern NYC or Paris–significantly sanitized versions of these places, to be exact. It fascinates me that the boys in Selznick’s work manage to hide out in relative safety in these places, stumbling luckily into nice people, food, etc. It’s a specific branch of fantasy I find particularly interesting. For those of you who have children this age, or work with kids this age, I’m curious to hear their perceptions on these characters and stories.
I hope others chime in too, this is a really interesting conversation. You make an excellent point, Sue. It’s also interesting that the female character in Wonderstruck also benefits from a lot of good fortune when she makes her way, alone, to the big city. It’s not something I’ve thought a lot about; I’ve kind of gotten swept along in the suspension of disbelief. But your observations are spot on; these are sanitized places full of kindly adults. I spent considerable time in NYC in the 70’s and even though I was rarely alone, it wasn’t always so “safe.” In fact, I remember one time I sat down at a booth in a fast food restaurant in Queens while my aunt was still in line and a kind of creepy guy sat down with me and started acting like he knew me and my family. I should also mention I was wearing a necklace with my name on it; which has since become a classic no-no. Needless to say she was horrified and kicked him out as soon as she got there.
An interesting contrast might be the NYC rendered in Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me which takes place in the same time period as Wonderstruck. Although the young girl in that book never runs away, she and her friends wander their neighborhood frequently, as I think was pretty typical of that time. The results are never terrifying but they aren’t always rosy; one kid in particular gets consistently bullied, which is part of the plot. Have you read WYRM? It’s a great book–and a fairly quick read. Perhaps a little less sanitized NYC; yet at the same time, with considerable references to A Wrinkle In Time, blurring the fantasy-reality genre.
I really don’t think that most children have thoughts of true escape on their minds when they read these stories. As a young teenager, and even before that, these books gave me my own chance of escape. That’s all I was looking for. I didn’t actually want to run anywhere, but I did want to live vicariously through someone who was running away.
On another note, I think that these stories empower young people to make the
“right” or “moral” choice, even when adults in their lives don’t make those choices. It is a chance for students to see the power behind their decisions and a way to show them that what they say and do does matter.
For me, books were my way of running away, and now as a teacher of grade 7-9 students, I feel that those students who do read, are reading for their own escape as well.
Such a good point, Casey. The attraction of these books is the escape from reality they provide. They may not exactly be fantasy but they’re a different kind of reality.
Now might be a good time to bring up all the dystopian novels out there. My kids are obsessed with books with dystopian worlds, the worst of all possible worlds, or all the faults of today’s world exaggerated to the nth degree. So maybe some kids like to escape to the sanitized worlds of Hugo Cabre and Wonderstruck and others want to escape to see how bad it can really get. And some like both. No readers are alike, I guess. What patterns do you see in your 7-9th graders?