November 18, 2021


Kaleidoscope. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $19.99.

     Humans impose meaning. We see pictures in clouds, read the future in entrails, observe patterns in fire or water to visualize matters neither fiery nor watery – and, more to the point where Brian Selznick’s latest book is concerned, we see recognizable things in the patterns formed by the glass and lenses of a kaleidoscope. Selznick here guides what we see – and the “we” refers to readers of all ages, although the book is ostensibly for preteens and teenagers. But Selznick does not impose order on a universe of underlying chaos (he wrote the book during the COVID-19 pandemic and its enforced isolation and separation, and it shows). Instead, he offers fragmentary, fragmented stories or bits of stories (the line between complete tales and portions is never clear), and invites readers to put them together under his gentle guidance. Selznick explains some of this in an Author’s Note at the back of the book, but it is not necessary to read that note in order to be affected and enthralled by Kaleidoscope, and in some ways it is counterproductive: this is a book that works best when readers piece it together entirely on their own.

     Selznick’s method here is fairly easy to describe, but its effects transcend the methodology. There are 24 short-to-very-short stories with some recurring themes, images and names – but the connections among the stories are for readers to ferret out. Illustratively, the book is tied together by a series of kaleidoscopic images: first there is a drawing that looks like a black-and-white rendering of a multicolored kaleidoscopic scene, and then there is a more-realistic drawing of the object just seen kaleidoscopically (it helps, after looking at the more-realistic art, to go back to the kaleidoscopic version). After the art, there is a story connected in some way to whatever object has been shown – and at the end of the story (or story fragment: many of the tales do come across as pieces of a puzzle rather than self-contained narratives), a new kaleidoscope view shatters whatever image has just been explored and offers readers something else.

     Characterization is not a strong element here and indeed seems almost irrelevant. The nameless narrator, who has just turned 13 (as the first story says), is repeatedly involved with a character named James, who may be his soul mate or may be dead or may be his dead soul mate. There are no significant female characters – Selznick is gay, and wrote the book during a pandemic-enforced separation from his husband – but there is little of any gender at all here, with the narrator and James and the other characters being the stuff of fairy tales and legends rather than concrete, individuated beings. Themes and characters appear and reappear in flickering fashion. For instance, one story is narrated by a giant who becomes friendly with James, even though the boy is no bigger than the giant’s finger – giant and boy bond through books. The next story also involves a magical creature bonding with a boy through books, this story taking place on an island that was created after the death at seaside of a “heartbroken giant.” Is this the giant of the previous story, or a different one, or a fairy-tale trope, or some combination of giant-focused legends? Selznick leaves this, and much else, for readers to decipher and decide.

     In a real-world kaleidoscope, reflections and refractions change constantly, but the objects producing them are always the same: it is only how we see those objects, how we twist and turn the kaleidoscope, how we point it toward a light source or away from one, that makes the patterns look different to us. And so it is in Selznick’s book: the same items are there continually, if not continuously: islands and apples, trees and keys. And the broader themes recur constantly as well: friendship, grief, love, loss, death, heartbreak, all leavened by flickers of optimism that are as welcome as they are infrequent. Kaleidoscope offers a world of magic, but it is not benign magic – or malign, for that matter. It is the magic of what-could-be, the magical possibility that by twisting the kaleidoscope just so, we will find some sort of deeply meaningful, perhaps eternal meaning in what it displays. That is a false hope in kaleidoscopes and in Kaleidoscope, but it is not a reason to despair: since we humans, we readers, impose meanings on the random kaleidoscopic patterns, we can choose to create a more-positive experience out of negative events. We can refuse to let privation and loss, from a pandemic or other causes, lead us fully into despair. We can acknowledge heartbreak without permitting grief to overcome us. This is the overarching, underlying meaning of the multiple story threads that make up Kaleidoscope, a book that asks its intended young audience to think more deeply and carefully about life than did any of Selznick’s earlier, more-accessible works. Or, to be completely accurate, this is one overarching, underlying meaning of the elements that make up Kaleidoscope. Readers of the book can discover and/or impose their own alternative meanings – that is one of the magical things about books, and about being human.

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