From Houdini to Hugo: The Art of Brian Selznick

I had a list of books I wanted to read aloud to my daughter when she was a 10-year-old.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret was the first one we shared together and she wouldn’t let me put it down. I recommended this tale to my friend’s son who is more of a nonfiction reader and he became instantly hooked as well.  
So what about this 526-page book makes it so appealing to children? Author-illustrator Brian Selznick’s unique approach to storytelling combines words and pictures (284 illustrations to be exact) in a truly original fashion, making it an engaging experience for readers of all ages.

Much of children’s literature is borne out of wondering “what if.” Selznick’s groundbreaking presentation of a novel, which tackles that question in the form of a visual narrative, not only earned him the Caldecott Medal for Children’s Book Illustration in 2008, but helped him win a place in the hearts of kids as well.
Now, an exhibition of Selznick’s original artwork is on display at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, featuring over 100 pencil illustrations, pen and ink drawings, acrylics, and models from his 17 books. The exhibit coincides with the release of his new book, Wonderstruck, and the film adaptation of Hugo, a major motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese.    

In addition, Brian Selznick is also the author of The Robot King, The Boy of A Thousand Faces, The Houdini Box, and has illustrated books for Andrew Clements, Ann M. Martin, and Pam Munoz Ryan.

With the exhibit’s opening in Memphis, I spoke with Brian Selznick to find out about his journey as a children’s book author-illustrator.

Memphis Parent: Winning the Caldecott Medal means the book, in addition to being available for kids to read at libraries and bookstores, increases the chances for being adapted for a video/stage/movie. With the release of the movie Hugo, how do you feel about your novel taking this new dimension?

Brian Selznick: I got a chance to see the movie in a rough cut and it’s incredibly beautiful and very faithful to my book. People who know the book are going to fall in love with the movie. The boy who plays Hugo, Asa Butterfield, is brilliant.

MP: You wrote and illustrated your first book, The Houdini Box, while working at Eeyore’s Books for Children in Manhattan. How did the job at Eeyore’s help shape your dream to become a children’s book illustrator?

Selznick: My boss at Eeyore’s, Steve Geck, took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about children’s books. I also painted windows for different holidays and different book events. That taught me how to think about book covers because store windows and book covers have a lot in common — they have to look good from far away, they have to look good from close up, and they have to draw you in.

MP: Among the children’s authors, you were particularly drawn to the works of Richard Egielski. Did you decide to follow his footsteps when creating the pencil illustrations for The Doll People — starting the story in pictures before the text?

Selznick: Richard Egielski and Arthur Yorinks made some really wonderful books together. Richard was the first illustrator I ever saw who began the pictures before the words. Sometimes on endpapers or on the title page he would begin drawing elements of the story that were not in the text. That was very influential on me as well. So when dealing with books like The Doll People, I followed Richard Egielski’s example.

MP: You presented The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley in full color and the book won a Caldecott Honor in 2002. How did visiting the Crystal Palace Park in south London help with this recognition?

Selznick: When I went to the Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham in England, I wanted the book to feel like you were alive with Waterhouse Hawkins, which is why I wanted to do it in color. Often, black and white can represent something from the past, but if you actually go back in time, of course, everything would be in full color. So visiting the real place and being able to touch the dinosaurs Waterhouse built for Dinosaur Island was incredibly helpful to get across all of  the information accurately.

MP: How did you feel about winning the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for The Invention of Hugo Cabret? What did you like most about creating this book?

Selznick: Nothing can really prepare you for a phone call telling that you actually won the Caldecott Medal. That was a huge thrill and incredibly surprising especially because the book is 526 pages, and most books that win the Caldecott Medal are picture books that are much shorter.

Everything I loved, everything I thought about, and everything I had learned in every other book I ever made went into making The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I spent two-and-a-half years working on the book — traveling to Paris three times to do research, talking to friends who were very good writers, and working closely with my editor Tracy Mack at Scholastic. By the time I finished, I wanted to try to make the book feel like an old-fashioned black-and-white silent movie, which is why I have long sequences of pictures in the book that help tell the story. 

I was happy with what I had done but I had no idea if anyone was going to read it. It is a book for children about a French silent movie maker which isn’t really a guaranteed best seller! Once the book was published, I realized very quickly that children loved it and that they really understood how to read it, how to go back and forth between words and pictures. I was very happy that they were responding so positively to the book. So when I see the medals on my books, I feel very proud and sort of surprised by it all.

MP: Why did you decide to become a children’s writer as opposed to writing for adults? I know you have partnered with Andrew Clements in illustrating a number of his books. How do you see yourself — as an illustrator or a writer?

Selznick: I love writing for kids. I think kids are the best audiences in the world, they are the most interesting and the most open. I generally work on stories that I like to write, and it so happens that people who most like what I do are 10- to 12-year-olds.

I was trained as an artist. So drawing definitely comes much easier to me. But I also think of myself as a writer now. I like writing and making up stories. Writing and illustrating are not really that different — both tell stories, and both have a narrative structure. That is important to me.

MP: What do you want children to come away with when they visit the exhibit and read your books? What advice do you give those who want to grow up to become a writer and illustrator?

Selznick: The show, which began at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Texas, covers pretty much every single book I have done from The Houdini Box to The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The exhibit includes the finished art in the books, sketches, and little dummies that I make to test how the pages are going to turn. You can see the original artwork that I had in my desk when I was working and compare it to the printed book, and see what’s changed, see what’s the same, and see the process.

I have always loved the idea of getting good books into people’s hands. Kids will see some books that they didn’t know about and then hopefully they will want to go to the library or the book store and read them. It would be thrilling for me if people come away wanting to read more books.

My advice to kids who want to write is to read as many books as possible, keep writing about things you love, and don't be afraid to ask for help. When I am working on a book, I ask lots of people for help. I have an editor who helps me make my story better. I talk to friends who are writers, to bounce ideas off of them. I also call up experts in different topics to help me learn more about the different parts of my story. Sometimes people think you are supposed to do everything by yourself. But everything that I make is a collaboration.  

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