Brian Selznick: A Unique Art Form
When Brian Selznick set out to write his first children's novel, about the early days of French film and a boy who lives in the walls of a Paris train station, he didn't expect to end up with a 550-page picture book and a nomination for America's National Book Award.
'When I was making the book I remember someone asking what I was working on and I said I was making this book for kids about French silent movies and clock making and broken machines, and the person said to me, "That sounds like a really bad idea."
And I can see how it did! But I think that so many of the silent movies are perfect for kids to watch. They're really funny, they're really interesting and you can follow them because they tell their story for the most part visually.
'One of the things that my editor said to me early on was that if the main character in the book is interested in these things and they're important to him and we like the main character, then they'll be important to the reader. And that was a very helpful bit of advice when I was feeling insecure about doing a book about French silent movies for kids. And she was right.'
Hugo Cabret is a character out of Selznick's imagination, and he ingeniously weaves his tale of the orphan clock-keeper into the skeleton of a remarkable true story. Georges Melies was a pioneering French filmmaker who lost his fortune and descended into obscurity, spending years working at a toy booth in Montparnasse station before being rediscovered.
Melies had a collection of wind-up mechanical figures which he donated to a museum, but they were destroyed and thrown away. In the novel, Hugo finds one of the automata and is determined to mend it, certain that it will reveal a message from his dead father. Instead it leads him to discover the truth about the bitter old man in the station.
Selznick's interest in film began in his childhood, in part because his grandmother's house was filled with books about his great-uncle, David O. Selznick, producer of blockbusters such as King Kong and Gone with the Wind.
'One of the things that really excited me about Georges Melies's film A Trip to the Moon is the handmade quality of it,' Selznick explains. 'It grew out of the theatre. Melies was a magician; a lot of early filmmakers were magicians, so everything that you see on the screen is handmade.
They do special effects by stopping the camera and moving something and starting the camera again so it looks like it disappears. So I think it's that handmade quality that gives things a kind of magic and humanity that often gets lost with a lot of computer animation.
'Also, silent movies for the most part have to tell their stories visually. There was some language in the title cards between moments, but for the most part the story had to be gotten across by what you saw. There's a direct relationship to picture books and that's part of what inspired Hugo.'
As magical as the story is the book itself, for The Invention of Hugo Cabret is both a beautiful work of art and an innovation in the form of the book, with full scenes narrated solely in pencil drawings, including the 42-page opening sequence.
Not quite picture book, not quite graphic novel, reading Hugo Cabret feels like experiencing a new medium for the first time, yet it is immensely approachable for readers of a wide range of abilities and interests.
'It's using words and pictures the way movies now use pictures and sound to work together to tell a story,' says Selznick. 'In a regular novel you've just got words, so in a way that would be more akin to a silent movie with no words in that it's just one art form, one medium that tells the story, as opposed to the use of more than one. What was interesting to me in Hugo was trying to figure out how to use these two different media to tell the story.'
What I wanted to do was remind people that they are reading a book and celebrate the beauty of the art form of a book. That I was conscious of - very much wanting it to be about bookmaking.
'I heard this quote from the composer Stephen Sondheim. He said that a lot of people think West Side Story is about racial tolerance, it's about gang warfare in New York in the 50s, it's based on Romeo and Juliet, it's about prejudice.
'But he said that's not what it's about. It's about the magic of what can happen in the theatre. They were working in a way that hadn't been done before so they wanted to do things that could only be done in the theatre and use that to help tell the story. And that really intrigued me. I feel like Hugo is about the cinema and it's about this kid living secretly in the walls of the train station, but ultimately for me what it's about is bookmaking.'
'A lot of times when you read a book, if you read a novel, you're not really supposed to think about the book. The book becomes a vehicle to get across the story that the author wrote.
You want a nice cover, you want it to be nicely produced, but what you're left with is the memory of this story that took place somewhere else that had nothing to do with the object of the thing that you're holding in your hand. But at the end of Hugo and all during it I wanted you to constantly be reminded that you were holding something that is a unique art form, that is a book.
Ultimately, Hugo Cabret is all about magic, and not the rabbit-out-of-a-hat kind: it's about the magic of cinema, of books, of friendship, but, most of all, the magic of real life. At a key moment, Hugo and his friend Isabelle look out over the roofs of Paris, pondering one's purpose in life and the workings of the world.
'I've always been a fan of magic and I loved magic when I was a kid, and my first book was about Harry Houdini. But I was conscious when I was writing Hugo that I didn't want magical magic to play a part in the story, the kind of magic that's otherworldly. I wanted everything that happened in the story, even if far-fetched or unlikely, to be possible. Hugo loves machinery and he sees the world as a kind of machine and everything fits together, so there's somewhat metaphysical conversations in the book. But plot-wise, everything that happens could happen.'
'And yet I wanted it to feel magical. I wanted it to feel like we live in a world where incredible things can happen, and they can happen to us. Like, really. We might not be able to make things fly, or disappear, or things like that, but we can experience things that some people might call a coincidence. That can happen, and can make us feel excited that maybe we're part of some kind of larger story.'
Brian Selznick was born and raised in New Jersey and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Art and Design literature.
Soon he left to pursue a full-time career in children's book illustration; he also has designed theatre sets and is a professional puppeteer. His first book, The Houdini Box, was inspired by a fascination with the famous magician and his secrets. He has illustrated both novels and picture books for other writers. His illustrations for Barbara Kerley's The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins won a Caldecott Honor Award in 2002; and in 2008, his groundbreaking and breathtaking The INvention of Hugo Cabret was awarded the Caldecott Medal.
He divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and San Diego, California.