Brian Selznick’s kindergarten teacher wrote on his report card “Brian is a good artist.” We can certainly give her credit for her precognition, although she also seems to have a talent for understatement! He was sculpting out of tinfoil at a very early age and copying drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo by the time he was ten years old. There was no doubt that he was going to be an artist – the question was what kind of artist?
In high school various adults suggested that he think about illustrating children’s books. But, as Brian puts it, “I rebelled against them for many years (who wants to listen to adults when you’re in high school?)”. Instead, he became fascinated with set design in college at the Rhode Island School of Design. “I loved creating the sets for shows, making the drawings, then the models with tiny furniture, and then helping to build and paint the actual set.” He also experimented with puppetry and making miniature toy theaters for puppet shows. One has to wonder if these skills might have come back into play when Hollywood made movies out of his book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck? And could there be some kind of Selznick genetic attraction to the stage, considering Brian’s grandfather’s first cousin was the Hollywood producer, David O. Selznick?
However, the graduate school that Brian wanted to attend in set design did not accept him. The world of children’s books owes them a tremendous debt of gratitude because, as he paused to reevaluate what to do about graduate school, he took a job at the bookstore, Eeyore’s Books for Children, in New York City. That quickly refocused him on children’s books and his first book, The Houdini Box, was published in 1991 while he still worked at Eeyore’s. He had actually started working on that book as a freshman in college and is currently working on it again, adapting it for the stage.
As Brian got more deeply into children’s books he thought about the books he loved as a child. The pen and ink drawings of Joe and Beth Krush as they illustrated Mary Norton’s The Borrowers books are among his favorites and we seem to see echoes of their finely detailed work in Brian’s books. His all-time favorite children’s books were the works of Remy Charlip, such as Fortunately and Handtalk Alphabet. Charlip just happened to be a set designer as well as a dancer and a children’s book author and illustrator. Remy and Brian met when Brian had become an award-winning author. “As an adult I met Remy Charlip and he ended up posing as Georges Melies in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, so everytime you see Melies in that book you’re actually looking at my favorite childhood writer and illustrator.”
Brian has shown a great versatility as his work in children’s books has grown. He illustrates other people’s books as well as his own. Although he admits “illustrating for myself is slightly easier because I don’t have to check with the author if I want to cut text or make some other large change, and I don’t have to worry that my interpretation will somehow conflict with the author’s original intention.”
Brian has illustrated both fiction and nonfiction. He feels his job as an illustrator is very similar in both cases. He needs to research the world that the story is about as carefully as possible, but in the end he has to make up the details of that world. “For instance, I illustrated a book by Pam Munoz Ryan about the opera singer Marian Anderson (When Marian Sang). There were scenes that take place during her childhood but there are no photos of the interior of her childhood home, at least none that I could find at the time. So I did as much research as I could into the time period and the types of things one would have found in a home like hers, and then I invented the specifics of the furniture and the decorations on the wall.”
And finally, with the trilogy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Wonderstruck and The Marvels, Brian has created something quite unique – a hybrid of picture book and novel where neither picture nor text can stand without the other. When first approached by Hollywood, Brian initially thought that the unique structure of The Invention of Hugo Cabret would make it unadaptable into a movie. However, he realized a change of emphasis made the adaptation possible. “My book is a celebration of movies but ultimately it’s about the importance of books. (The) screenplay made the story into a celebration of books and reading and writing, but ultimately it’s about the importance of movies.”
What does Brian Selznick have in the works? There is the stage version of The Houdini Box in the works. The movie version of Wonderstruck should appear in the U.S. in October 2017. But Brian has not abandoned books! “I’m still a book-maker and I’m always eager to go back to my desk and find out what else books can do.”