Brian Selznick’s books often transport readers across time, whether to the dawn of cinema in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, to a 19th-century theater in The Marvels, or to 1920s and 1970s New York in Wonderstruck. With Big Tree—a 527-page epic in alternating and overlapping words and visuals—Selznick takes readers back 100 million years to the Cretaceous period, to meet two sycamore seeds on their quest to put down roots. Next month, Selznick will embark on a nationwide book tour with stops from Manhattan to Maui, and Big Tree’s audiobook listeners will hear a version read by none other than Meryl Streep.
Director, writer, and producer Steven Spielberg planted the original idea for Big Tree when he contacted Selznick in 2017. “He wanted to make a movie about nature from nature’s point of view,” Selznick said. Spielberg suggested setting the events in the Devonian era, before the time of the dinosaurs. Selznick did some digging and discovered that although plants were abundant in the Devonian, “there wasn’t a lot of biodiversity. There were very few insects, and most of the plants were ferns. I suggested that we move the story about 260 million years later,” he told PW.
Selznick met about four times with Spielberg and co-producer Chris Meledandri in Los Angeles, presenting research and thoughts on character development. They envisioned a narrative based in the science of plant communication, albeit with anthropomorphic plants, fungi, and creatures. But in 2020, the pandemic left the project in limbo. When Selznick realized “the movie was never going to happen,” he proposed turning the concept into a book. He’d had a revelation that “this narrative about two little seeds trying to find a safe place to grow parallels the kind of stories I normally write, about children separated from their parents who are trying to make their way and often create new families.”
From Screenplay to Book
When the producers agreed that the erstwhile film could become a book, Selznick showed his work in progress to his longtime editor, Scholastic v-p and publisher Tracy Mack. He hadn’t been able to divulge much when it was in development, and he pitched it to Mack in the form of an unillustrated screenplay, with detailed written descriptions of what the pictures would be. “I knew immediately it was an incredible book—I had chills reading it,” Mack recalled. “He never gives you what you anticipate. He gives you what you didn’t know you wanted.”
Selznick began sketching the seed siblings Merwin and Louise, named for poet W.S. Merwin and seed scientist and biochemist Louise Colville. He did research on the plants, fungi, lacewing insects, and micro- and macro-organisms of the era. He created thumbnails and built models of Merwin and Louise’s mother tree, and he made tiny book dummies to demonstrate the page turns. He drew the final images at one-quarter scale, using an HP lead in his favorite Staedtler Mars mechanical pencil. “He creates like a director—he has that 360 view of things,” Mack said. “It’s like a full-scale 3D production, with sound, with all of it.”
Because the main characters don’t have faces, Selznick had to figure out how to convey emotion in the alternating wordless and written sections. He couldn’t make tears run down the seeds’ faces or send a fearful shiver down their backs. “There’s no front or back to a seed,” Selznick said, “so I was left with gesture and perspective” as well as closeups and long shots to underscore moments of determination or isolation. He anthropomorphized “by making the fluff at the spiky end of the sycamore seeds act like arms and legs. Scientifically, that fluff helps the seeds move around, fly through the wind, and attach to the fur of animals.” Through the combination of images and words, readers actively grasp the characters’ motivations.
He and Mack also talked about character development and how to help readers empathize with the seeds. “I’m a character-driven reader, so every book for me is about the emotion at the center of the story,” Mack said. “We went back and forth a lot about clarifying their personalities, articulating the relationship between Merwin and Louise, and making sure the emotional arc felt clear. Merwin is this rigid, rational being, and Louise is a dreamer, more prone to imagination, who listens to her intuition.”
In fact, the story begins in an awestruck moment that establishes Louise’s personality, Selznick explained. “We open the story inside Louise’s dream, having an entire double-page spread that just says ‘Hello, stars.’ It immediately places us in this unusual graphic world.” Soon, a dinosaur-related incident flings the seeds into an enormous, dangerous wilderness, where they seek the perfect sunny, untrodden soil in which to grow and communicate with an animistic Earth. Their destinies evoke the ancient processes and profound scale of our planet.
Coming Up Next
Selznick expressed gratitude to Spielberg and Meledandri, for giving him “free rein on the book—the only thing they asked was to see everything before it went to press.” Having to submit the finished work felt “nerve-wracking,” he admitted. When Meledandri sent him the official go-ahead, Selznick’s husband David Serlin printed a celebratory copy of the email. Selznick still has it on his studio bulletin board.
When Spielberg and Meledandri phoned Selznick for a wrap-up chat about the book, the author had one last question for them. He still wanted to know why they contacted him in the first place. “I said, ‘Why did you think of me for this? I don’t write about plants. I’m not a nature writer.’ ” The producers complimented his characters and storytelling, but Selznick confessed that they’d intuited something else about his creative abilities. As he recalled, “Spielberg said, ‘That’s my job.’ He told me, ‘Actors say this all the time: why did you think of me for this role?’ Spielberg said he sees people’s potential. That’s what he offers.” This time, the outcome was not a movie but a page-turner.
Selznick now looks forward to introducing Big Tree to its audience. Peter Glassman, owner of Manhattan bookstore Books of Wonder, will host the April 4 launch event at Scholastic’s headquarters in SoHo. Warwick’s bookstore and San Diego’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies will partner for an event; the Reading Bug in San Carlos, Calif., will host an outdoor, picnic-style event on April 23; and the Rabbit hOLe Museum in Kansas City plans an April 28 shindig. Selznick will visit the Merwin Conservancy in Maui, a nod to his character’s namesake. The grand tour closes at the New York Botanical Garden on June 3.
The author has more irons in the fire as well, including a full draft of a story-in-progress and a personal assignment he gave himself during the pandemic: creating illustrations to accompany Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. “I thought I was going to only do one or two, but I quickly decided to do one for all 137 chapters, and I’ve got about 97 done now.” He emphasized that “there’s no end game with this,” and he’s enjoying the art for its own sake. Looking ahead, he anticipates “several adaptations of my other books into other media: a musical of Hugo, a stage and film adaptation of The Marvels, and a screenplay with my friend William Joyce.”
As a former independent bookseller himself—he began his career as a window designer at Eeyore’s Books for Children—Selznick envisions Big Tree sharing a table with Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, all of which celebrate the wonder and resilience of the natural world. “I’m always thinking about creating a table of books that all support each other—communities of books!” he said.
“Brian really understands that he and his work are part of a lineage” of picture-book making and storytelling, Mack said. Big Tree speaks to young readers, she believes, because “the weight of the world is on the next generation’s shoulders—it’s really a reckoning, and they feel it subliminally. This book leaves us with a tremendous sense of hope, promise, and power, that even small acts make a difference.”
Big Tree by Brian Selznick. Scholastic Press, $32.99 Apr. 4 ISBN 978-1-338-18063-3