In 2007, Brian Selznick already enjoyed a reputable career in children’s literature, with dozens of picture books to his name and a Caldecott honor for The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins. But the publication of his illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret was a game-changer. The unique blend of wordless, illustrated spreads and longer chunks of text that Selznick used to tell Hugo Cabret earned him a Caldecott Medal, a film deal with Martin Scorsese, and thousands of new fans eager to see what he would do next.
The answer, as it turns out, is Wonderstruck, a novel that tells the intertwining stories of two deaf runaways, 50 years apart, and that reads like a love letter to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. We sat down with Selznick to talk about Wonderstruck, why his brand of storytelling grabs kids, and what we can expect from Hugo the movie (which hits theaters November 23, 2011).
So many teachers have told us how well Hugo Cabret works for reluctant readers.
The first time I went on tour, I hadn’t met any kids who had read the book. I got to this school a little bit early, and I saw that one kid was holding a copy of the book to his chest, clutching it as if it were a treasure. And I remember thinking to myself, “That must be a good sign.”
Some teachers began telling me they were using the book with their advanced readers, and others told me they were using the book with their reluctant readers — that [the book] was getting kids who hadn’t read before to read.
It’s meant so much to me that teachers and kids have embraced the book in different ways, and that kids understand looking at pictures and following a visual narrative is a kind of reading.
Did you like to read as a child?
I never really liked reading as a kid. I had a couple of books that I loved, but I spent a lot of time seeing the movies of the books that I should have read. After college, I got a job at a children’s bookstore, where I finally read many of the books I’d heard of growing up.
So I can’t say that reading was essential, but art was. I loved to draw and I loved to make things. I never really thought of books as related to my own work; they were just something else. It took me a long time to realize that I wanted to make my own books.
What is it like to see Hugo Cabret become a movie?
It’s been really thrilling. I’ve always loved the movies, and I made Hugo as an homage to cinema. It’s filled with references to films that I watched while I was researching the book. But because the story depends on how the words and the pictures interact, it felt like that precluded the possibility of it being turned into a movie.
When I got the call that Martin Scorsese wanted to make the film of my book, after picking myself up off the floor, I realized that he would be the perfect person because he knows pretty much everything about every movie ever made.
Kids are sometimes discouraged from a career in the arts. Was that true for you?
My dad was an accountant, and he was sort of forced into accounting by his mother, who wanted him to have a solid way of making a living. One of the things my dad always said was he wanted us kids to do what we wanted to do. When I was little, I wanted to be an artist, my sister wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, and my brother wanted to be a brain surgeon — and that’s what we’ve all grown up to be.
Were your interests encouraged in school?
My public school growing up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, had very good art programs. My teachers knew that I loved to draw, but I hated going to gym class. Sometimes they would allow me to go to art class instead of gym, which always felt like a victory!
I take it you never wanted to run away like the characters in Wonderstruck?
No, not me. But children’s literature is filled with orphans and runaways because it gives [writers] an opportunity to have a child who is making their own choices. A child on his or her own is much more interesting to read about. That’s something that all kids will be doing in one way or another as they grow up. We’re all just heading out into the world trying to figure out where we belong.
Do you have a Kindle?
I am a bookmaker. I love what books can do. I love holding books, smelling books, and turning pages. So my concern is making books. People talk about books as if they aren’t a technology, but they are a technology. They only do two things: They open, and they have pages that turn. But within that limited technology, you can do anything, you can go anywhere, you can make anything happen.