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Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Room of Wonders: Why do you keep such an ordinary stone?

The Room of Wonders
Sergio Ruzzier
Frances Foster Books. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2006

No, we didn't end 2012 with our selection of best picture books of the year and we aren't starting 2013 with the next biggest thing to appear this year. The thing is this blog really is about what we read and enjoy, so we don't really pay much attention to publication dates. 

The Room of Wonders was published in 2006. It is out of print. It has not even been published in Spanish, the language of We Read it Like This' sister blog (Lo leemos así). But The Room of Wonders is not just good, it's terrific. And it should not be out of print. So there. 

This is not the first Sergio Ruzzier book I review here, nor is it the first time I mention how much we like his books in this household. I discovered his book Amandina while taking a closer look at the catalogue of Neal Porter Books prior to A Sick Day for Amos McGee and have been in love with his stories, his characters and his colours ever since.

Amandina and The Room of Wonders have in common a certain melancholic persistence about their characters that wins me over every time we read them. Both are ultimately about the joy of doing what one likes to do. The Room of Wonders is also about beginnings and endings, starting over and the magical, fulfulling purpose that can be built out of serendipity.

The Story
Pius Pelosi is (literally and figuratively) a pack rat who collects all sorts of curious things, such as 'twisted roots, interesting twigs, leaves, feathers, and sometimes a skin left behind by a snake', and exhibits them on the shelves of what he calls his Room of Wonders. Visitors come from all over to look at his collection and delight in listening to Pius telling all the stories (some real, some fictional for the purpose of enterainment) behind each item. But there is one item they are all rather puzzled about: an absolutely ordinary looking small grey pebble in a fancy glass case in the middle of the room. "It's an eyesore. It spoils the whole collection. You should get rid of it", they say. 

Despite Pius being very fond of the grey pebble (it was the first item he ever collected), he eventually ends up believing they must be right and throwing it in the river. As soon as he does so, a cloud of apathy and gloom takes hold of him and he sees no sense in any of it anymore. He decides his collection has become a burden and gives everything away. With everything gone, Pius lies on the floor feeling 'as empty as the shelves' and spends three days and three nights moping. On the fourth day he goes out and what do you think he finds round the corner? A grey pebble! And off he goes again, in search of new wonders for a new collection.   

The Illustrations
Ruzzier uses beautifully warm earthy and mineral colours to create what almost feels like a stage set of a Tuscan village. Ruzzier is a master of making rather ugly and dejected-looking characters irresistibly attractive. Pius has eyes that peer out at you from the page and draw you into an emotional depth few picture books -few books- are capable of portraying.   

Complemented by a simple, restrained text with satisfyingly occasional poetic waves splashing through, the illustrations in The Room of Wonders create a wonderfully real world and mood that invite you to step in and wander the streets with Pius Pelosi and feel the pebble "smooth and cool" in our hands, with him.  

We love the colours, we love Pius, we love the secondary characters, we love the floor of his Room of Wonders, we love the landscapes and we love love love poring over and giggling at all the items on his shelves. Oh, did I say we also love Ruzzier's fancy frames (each illustration with a different one)?  

Take a look at some of the illustrations in The Room of Wonders and enjoy: 
A key! 

Gathering wonders

Arriving home with new wonders

The Room of Wonders, Click on it and just check out that pair of feet in the bottom left hand corner. Giggle giggle every time. 

Pius has a story for each item of the collection

Impatient red bird asking Pius about the ordinary grey pebble,
while pig looks at it disapprovingly in the background

Pius throws his dear grey pebble in the river. 

Switch to black and white for memory of joy of finding the item that started his collection. 

Pius on the floor, "as empty as the shelves"

Pius chuffed with his new pebble. Wouldn't you be? 

Pius off in search of new wonders. 

Reading it aloud
The Room of Wonders is one of those books that gets an "again, again" after you read it the first time. The text is gentle and smooth to read out loud, with plenty of textual images to fuel children's imagination and conversation ("a skin left behind by a snake", "shiny bits of glass, shaped and smoothed by the ocean", "a letter never delivered", "a toy soldier who had lost his gun"). 

I'm going to quote from my review of Amandina, because I feel the same applies to The Room of Wonders

[The book] is proof that although rhyme, rhythm and the opportunity to put on silly voices help when it comes to reading to children (I'm talking of young children here), if the story is captivating and intriguing enough and the character is developed powerfully through the illustrations, they are by no means prerequisites for toddler read-aloud enjoyment. 

The Room of Wonders quietly and thoughtfully draws you -child and adult- into its evocative world, both in an emotional and an intellectual sense. It's a book to share, to point things out, to giggle, to ask why and to wonder. I'd also say it's genuinely a book to be enjoyed by all ages. 

The Ruzzier craze has spread from our immediate family to extended family and I'd like to share with you a video of my sister reading The Room of Wonders to my charming two-year old niece. I think it's a wonderful example of how to share books with younger kids: relax and enjoy (you too!).  

More things we like about about The Room of Wonders
I don't know this for certain, but I'm prepared to bet The Room of Wonders is one of those books that stays with you through childhood and into adulthood. We'll have to ask my son in 20 years' time. 

One thing I do know, though, is that a certain kind of book is not only enjoyable on a fictional plane, but also spills over delightfully into real life. A couple of weeks ago I went for a walk with my son in a nearby park and we ventured into an area we'd never been before. He was very excited about going "deep into the park" and suddenly said, entirely unprovoked: 'Let's be pack rats! Let's find things to collect!' And so we decided to gather clippings of every plant or tree we came across until we had them all. Who's Pius? I asked. 'Me, of course!', he beamed back. 

We can't get enough of Pius! 

So! Go to your local library and see if you get lucky. Otherwise, you can try to get hold of a second hand copy although I've just checked and available copies seem to be rather expensive. If neither of the two options above work, just cross your fingers and hope someone decides to reissue it soon! In the meantime, listen to our recording and look at the wonderful illustrations above. 

For a very recent, excellent interview of Sergio Ruzzier, go here. For a slightly older, but equally fantastic interview, go here

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Sergio Ruzzier, 2006. 
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. You may copy this or reproduce it, but please be nice and credit the author and the site. 


  1. WOW! I will definitely be looking for this book now. Thanks for such a great review. To go with this story you might track down Michael Rosen's poem about a pebble http://frombooksofpoems.blogspot.co.uk/2008/06/pebble-by-michael-rosen.html < it will make you look at pebbles in a different way. Then on the collecting theme, we adore - Tibois fait son musée. It's not available in English, but maybe you can read French, or maybe it's available in Spanish. I reviewed it here: http://www.playingbythebook.net/2011/05/16/put-yourself-in-the-shoes-of-your-child-learning-to-read/

  2. Thank you so much for your comment, Zoe! I didn't know Rosen's poem or Tibois fait son musée either! Thanks! The poem's great and Tibois looks super. No sign of it in Spanish but French is fine. I'll definitely check it out. I love your parallel between children decoding when learning to read and adults reading a book in a foreign language. Very interesting. And your own museum is great! Right up our lane :). Thanks again for the feedback and suggestions and good luck with finding a copy of The Room of Wonders.