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The publication of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" in 2007 by illustrator Brian Selznick took the book world by storm. Among other things, it was a National Book Award finalist and the recipient of the 2008 Caldecott Medal, the equivalent of an Oscar in the world of children's literature.
Readers had never seen anything quite like it a 526-page novel made up largely of illustrations. In fact, "Hugo" has the feel of an old-fashioned flipbook or a black-and-white silent film. And because the book was inspired by the work of early French filmmaker George Méliès, its structure perfectly complements the narrative.
Some of Selznick's admirers wondered if he could create another image-driven novel that would feel as fresh and original as "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." The answer is yes. "Hugo" was followed by "Wonderstruck," a multigenerational story about a child's quest for a missing parent, set against the backdrop of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
And now Scholastic has just released "The Marvels." Without saying too much about the plot the novel is full of surprises "The Marvels" crosses time and space to tell the story of people in search of family and self. It also explores the notion of truth what's real, what isn't. Like its predecessors, "The Marvels" makes use of actual physical settings, this time in London.
Selznick, who will appear at the downtown Salt Lake City Library on Friday, talks with The Tribune about his process as an artist.
How do your books evolve? Image first? Words first? Or is the process a little messier than that?
When I'm working on a new story, I always write before I draw, even though I see narrative in my head and I think in pictures. I usually begin by writing long lists of what I want to draw. I also write short paragraphs describing the story.
How do you decide which part of your story is visual and which part isn't?
The structure of the book and the purpose of the illustrations usually evolve out of the story itself. With "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," I wanted to make the book feel like a silent movie; with "Wonderstruck," I wanted to tell a story about a deaf child with images because I thought it might echo her visual experience of the world; and for "The Marvels," I wanted the pictures, which fill the first 400 pages of the book, to become a kind of collective memory for the reader, as well as the characters in the story.
How long does it take you to create your novels? What does your workday look like?
I usually work on my books for three to four years. It's a long process and my workday changes, depending on what part of the process I am in. I begin working somewhat sporadically by writing down different ideas for the story and trying to connect them. Then, once I have an idea where the story is set and who the characters are, I begin doing research. I travel to see places where the book is set. For "Hugo," I went to Paris; for "Wonderstruck," I went to Gunflint Lake, Minn., and New York City; and for "The Marvels," I went to London. Then, when it's time to draw the final pictures that will actually appear in the book, I work every day from about 9 in the morning till 10 at night. This part of the process can take up to a year.
This book feels more personal than either "Hugo" or "Wonderstruck." Is that a fair assessment?
All of the books that I make come out of my own experiences and interests, so they all feel very personal. Looking back on them, I see that they each, in their own ways, deal with ideas around family, loss, love, grief and storytelling. All the characters express themselves with variations on how I feel about these things.
Magic literal magic often appears in your work. Was this an interest of yours when you were growing up?
Literal magic appeared in my first book, "The Houdini Box," which was about a boy who is obsessed with the magician Harry Houdini. There is also real magic in another book I wrote called "The Robot King," about two children who build a robot that comes to life. But "The Marvels," "Wonderstruck" and "The Invention of Hugo Cabaret" have no actual magic in them. They were written and illustrated to feel magical, to seem as if they are imbued with something otherworldly, but all of them take place in historically accurate settings with events that, although unlikely, are all entirely possible. I was interested in trying to capture the feeling of magic without using any actual magic in these three books. These things could happen to the reader, too.
The phrase "Either you see it or you don't" runs throughout "The Marvels." What's the genesis of this?
The phrase "You either see it or you don't" comes directly from a man named Dennis Severs, the founder of what is now known as The Dennis Severs House, which was an inspiration for "The Marvels." He invited guests into his home, which he kept as if it was still in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was up to the guests to figure out what was going on inside. They either saw it (understood the mystery) or they didn't.
What do you see Brian Selznick working on in the future?
I have a few ideas for my next book, but in the meantime I am working on a movie version of "Wonderstruck" and I'm writing a musical based on my first book, "The Houdini Box," as well as a few other interesting projects.
Pretend you're still a bookseller at Eeyore's Books in Manhattan. What five books would you personally recommend for young readers and why?
If I was still working as a bookseller at Eeyore's Books for Children (where I began my career) and a customer came in looking to start a library for a new baby, I would say that every child must have a copy of the following books: "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak, "Fortunately" by Remy Charlip, "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" by E.L. Konigsburg, the complete set of Beatrix Potter's books (which I'll count as a single purchase) and, for when the child finally reaches high school, a book by Ray Bradbury: "The Martian Chronicles."
What would you like to see and do while you're in Salt Lake City?
I'm going to be in Salt Lake City for a very short time and it will be my first visit to Utah. I'm greatly looking forward to meeting everyone who comes to my talk, and hopefully I'll be able to see a few sights before I leave. You'll have to make some recommendations for me!
Brian Selznick will discuss and sign his new novel, "The Marvels."
Where • Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South
When • Friday, Oct. 23, 7 p.m.
Tickets • Free; information, 801-484-9100 or kingsenglish.com/event/brian-selznick-marvels
Learn more • For more information about Selznick's work, visit http://www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/about_brian_bio.htm