If Brian Selznick were telling this story about his own career, it might open with a series of his trademark pencil drawings: a wide shot of a darkened movie theater. A funnel of light from the projector. A close-up of young Brian, focused on the flickering images, waiting to see... his name on the screen.
"My grandfather's first cousin was David O. Selznick, so ever since I was really little I felt very connected to the movies because films like King Kong or Gone with the Wind would open with the words 'David O. Selznick'—my name—up there bigger than life."
That Selznick has a genetic predisposition to film has long been evident in his illustrations—he patterned the opening pages of Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride after scenes from the movie Flying Down to Rio—but never more so than in his newest book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, Mar.), an illustrated novel set in 1930s Paris. The story, about a mechanically minded orphan and an impoverished, dispirited pioneer of French cinema, is told through words and in sequential drawings that have the feel of movie storyboards, with establishing shots, cutaways and closeups. The climatic chase scene is told entirely in pictures—over the course of 36 wordless pages.
Selznick's editor for the book, Tracy Mack, has never seen anything else quite like it. "As editors, we're always getting excited about something different, not different just for sake of being different, but truly new," she says. "This to me felt wholly different. It's not a graphic novel. It's not a film. It's more like a picture book where the illustrations are pushing beyond what the words say."
A 533-page picture book, that is, replete with references to the heroes of French cinema, from the Lumière brothers to François Truffaut. Selznick got the idea for a story about George Méliès, often regarded as the father of special effects, after learning the early 20th-century filmmaker had started out as a magician, a trade that was the subject of Selznick's first book. "The Houdini Box [Scholastic, 1991] was about a boy who meets Houdini, and it struck me that it might be interesting to write about a kid who meets George Méliès," he says.
That idea percolated—for more than a decade—until Selznick came across a chapter about Méliès and his collection of automata ("very complex windup toys," Selznick explains) in a book about the history of mechanical life. Financial failure led Méliès to donate his collection to a French museum that promised to display them, but instead put them in the attic. A leaky roof, repeated rainstorms: the automata rusted. A beam collapsed, the delicate machines were judged beyond repair, and thrown away.
"As soon as I read that, I imagined a kid finding these broken machines in the garbage and as soon as I saw that kid, after years and years of thinking about it, I found the beginning of the story," Selznick remembers.
Though Mack calls him a "natural storyteller," Selznick says writing is a struggle. His degree, from the Rhode Island School of Design, is in illustration, a major he chose because, he says, it had no required courses. He planned a career in set design until he didn't get into the graduate program he wanted.
A friend recommended he apply at the now-defunct Eeyore's Books for Children on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The manager, Steve Geck, initially turned him away because he lacked a basic knowledge of children's literature, but suggested he study up and reapply—advice that Geck, now executive editor at Greenwillow Books, says he gave to numerous unsuccessful applicants. "Of all the people I made that offer to, there was only one person who ever came back." Geck hired him (Selznick had spent the time between applications at the Donnell Reading Room) and became his mentor, sending him home after his shifts with "shopping bags full of books" to read. "He was a sponge," Geck recalls.
He was also versatile, wowing customers with his story hour performances (Selznick is also an accomplished puppeteer) and garnering attention with elaborate holiday-themed displays he painted backwards on the inside of the store windows. "It's sickening to think we would wash them off every month," Geck says.
It was Geck who passed the Houdini Box manuscript on to Anne Schwartz at Knopf, who published it. Then Selznick showed the finished book to a favorite customer—HarperCollins editor Laura Geringer. "She told me that she was a writer and editor —I had no idea—and asked if I'd like to work with her," Selznick says. Geringer hired him to illustrate Pam Conrad's Doll Face Has a Party.
Coincidentally, his first book for Mack at Scholastic was Conrad's Our House. She then signed him up to illustrate Pamela Muñoz Ryan's Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, a book she calls "the beginning of his greatness."
The original vision for Hugo was pretty standard: a 150-page book with an illustration in every chapter. But Selznick was determined to make this story about the roots of French cinema work visually. In revising, he listed every passage that didn't contain dialogue or the boy's thoughts. "Anything that was just a description, I replaced with a drawing."
Mack, who studied painting herself, pushed him even further. "He had a long introduction to the train station [where Hugo secretly lives) but we needed to get to Hugo quicker. I told him, 'Just draw it.' He resisted because he had really come to like that piece of writing, but it wound up being so much better because the visual introduction imparts such a strong sense of place," she says.
By the time he finished, his 150-page book had become 533 pages, with more than 300 pages of illustration. Selznick worried this was not what Scholastic had signed up for, but he shouldn't have, Mack says.
"I said 'Go for it,' because it was Brian," Mack recalls. "Whatever he came up with, I knew I would have something incredibly rich to work with."
|Sue Corbett reviews children's books for theMiami Herald and is the author of12 Again (Dutton).|