Brian Selznick is in the business of wonder. He creates books that challenge our notions of how fiction is supposed to work. Some say the trailblazing artist and storyteller has reinvented the genre by combining elements of the picture book, graphic novel, and film into an entirely original reading experience.
Selznick’s books introduce an innovative strategy for blending words and images, interweaving narrative and picture sequences. His breakthrough novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” tells two sides of a single story about a little orphan boy who lives in a Paris train station at the dawn of the 1930s and forges an unlikely friendship with the pioneering, French filmmaker Georges Méliès.
“Hugo” unfolds like a silent movie, with entire chapters told in mesmerizing pencil drawings. It is a book about magic – the magic of the silver screen, the magic of family and friendship, the magical thrill of adventure, all set in the City of Light. With its cinematic feel and mystical take on historical fiction, the hefty book (526 pages, nearly 300 of which are picture pages) set the literary world on fire. The novel won the 2008 Caldecott Medal, was a National Book Award finalist, and was turned into the five-time Oscar award-winning film “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” directed by Martin Scorsese.
Fans of Selznick’s work can see it on a larger scale in the traveling exhibition “From Houdini to Hugo: The Art of Brian Selznick,” which runs through January 11, 2015 at the Delaware Art Museum.
Selznick’s illustrations animate the imaginations of children and adults with his blending of illusion, history, and adventure. The traveling exhibition presents more than 100 paintings and drawings by Selznick, as well as books, so visitors can put the work in context.
“People want to actually see the original pieces of paper I touched,” Selznick explains. “The pen marks, the smudges, what I may have spilled on the paper. These are true touchstones, in every sense of the word.”
Selznick, now 47, was born in East Brunswick, NJ. His grandfather was a cousin to film studio executive David O. Selznick, producer of the original King Kong and Gone with the Wind. His schools offered a solid art program, which Selznick supplemented with additional art lessons.
Selznick displayed his family’s gift for the visual arts. He also attended the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and nearby Brown University, where he studied set design.
A position designing window displays at a Manhattan children’s bookstore, Eeyore’s Books for Children, opened Selznick’s eyes to the world of children’s literature. He began writing and drawing “The Houdini Box,” which tells the story of a boy who almost meets the great magician. Selznick subsequently illustrated novels and picture books for other writers, such as “The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins,” which won a Caldecott Honor in 2002.
Today, Selznick’s worlds of imagination are concocted inside an art studio stuffed with sculptures, hand-crafted puppets, and dioramas.
One illustration that grabs visitors immediately is the lush, dark cover for “Houdini’s Box,” which was published in 1991. Selznick painted Houdini’s stern face with piercing eyes emerging from behind a rippling red velvet curtain. The dead-on look on Houdini’s face, vaguely reminiscent of the floating wizard’s head in “The Wizard of Oz,” is both whimsical and creepy, something that Selznick created unabashedly in many of his book illustrations.
“Houdini was my hero, very meaningful to me as a kid,” Selznick relates. “Part of Houdini’s power is what we project on him, the ability to escape from anything. We all have that on a primeval level. It was a challenge to create that penetrating gaze that scary, disturbingly strange look through his eyes. Through his eyes you feel his real presence.”
Selznick calls himself a mechanical worker who doesn’t think about themes so much as plot. His remarkable drawings of vivid characters and raw emotion develop slowly over hundreds of pages achieved with a painstaking cross-hatching drawing technique. He works on a very small scale with a Staedtler Mars HB mechanical pencil.
“Part of what I was doing in ‘Hugo’ was to get the tone of black-and-white, early French film. There was this richness in the textures of early cinema – conveyed on paper by the cross-hatching. It’s a way to achieve a certain kind of shading I want. I like drawing light, but of course to do that, you are drawing darkness.”
So, how does he get those close-up faces, and above all startling eyes, that move through all those pages?
“I read that Dickens used to have a mirror on his desk and made facial expressions into it to help him describe what he saw,” he says. “I keep a mirror to help me – I furrow my brow, I raise my eyebrows. So I guess I’m in good company.”
While he respects and appreciates computer-generated art, Selznick says it erases the hand of the artist. “I wanted to do something in which you see the hand of the artist,” Selznick explains. “I wanted to stretch as far as possible what I could do with the technology of bookmaking to achieve authenticity. I’m interested in the act of turning a page, to tell a story by moving forward physically. In picture books, you turn a page at the pace you want. Unlike a film, you can go back or skip ahead, whatever you want to do. The reader becomes the driving force behind the narrative. It’s a more personal relationship in how you receive the story.”