2008 Caldecott Medal Winner
Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is not your everyday children's novel. Its storyline is drawn from incredible, real, almost unbelievable events; its characters are in-depth, intricate sketches of compelling real-life and imagined personas. Most extraordinary, though, is its format: a mixture of the traditionally written novel, the graphic novel, the picture book and the film storyboard, yielding a unique format that draws the reader into an almost movie-like experience. It is, in short, a work of inspired genius, melding the literary and visual worlds into one beautifully drawn and thrilling tale.
The storyline follows a young Parisian orphan, Hugo Cabret, in the early 20th century as he rescues and rebuilds an automaton, an early robot-like machine, while struggling to stay alive, protect his treasure—his only remaining link to his dead father—and avoid being caught by the police. In the process, young Hugo uncovers the identity, endures the wrath and captures the heart of a crotchety old man who turns out to be a renowned magician and filmmaker—and the very person who created the automaton Hugo is trying so desperately to rebuild. The result is a story of love and loss, discovery and magic.
Selznick is not a newcomer to the children's book world, having illustrated many acclaimed books, including The Frindle, Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, Riding Freedom and The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, for which he won a Caldecott Honor. He has also written one of his own, The Houdini Box, winner of the Texas Bluebonnet Award and the Rhode Island Children's Book Award. "From an early age, I always liked doing things with art," Selznick recalls. "I would sketch on my notebooks in high school, and my advisors kept telling me that I should do illustrations for children's books." But Selznick didn't want to pursue the field. "I rebelled against it for a long time," admits the New Jersey native, who purposely avoided classes on the genre while attending the Rhode Island School of Design, and at one point, steered clear of a visiting Maurice Sendak. Instead, he focused his efforts on theater, but when his dreams of graduate school in that area fell through, Selznick had a change of heart: "I realized maybe everyone had been right about me after all—maybe I should become an illustrator."
With his new ambition to create children's books, but with no practical knowledge of the genre, Selznick used the only resource available to him—his personality. "I charmed my way into working at Eeyore's Books for Children," the author says, referring to New York City's legendary children's bookstore. There, Selznick was taken under the wing of Steve Geck, the store's manager at the time (now an editor at Greenwillow Books), who taught him everything he knew about children's books. "That's really where I first saw the potential for what a book could be," Selznick says. It is also where he was introduced to his first editor, Laura Geringer, who later hired him to illustrate Doll Face Has a Party, the first of many books he would illustrate before trying his hand at writing.
>For Hugo Cabret, Selznick initially set out to write a "regular" novel with perhaps one drawing per chapter, but that concept was soon dismissed. "I wanted to do something unusual with the pictures," he says, "but I didn't know what." While researching the book, the author came across the works of René Clair, an early French cinematographer who incorporated bursts of sounds as narrative elements in his silent films. Selznick became inspired to incorporate pictures in much the same way: bursts of images throughout the text that provide a narrative themselves, not just an illustration of the words. "The goal is that you won't remember what was text and what was imagery," the author says. To this end, Selznick opens the book with a 26-page sequence of illustrations that grabs our attention and "teaches" us how to read the book.
The idea for the book itself was also inspired by a French filmmaker (and magician), George Méliès, who appears as a main character in the story. "It started when I first saw A Trip to the Moon [Méliès' most famous film]," Selznick recalls. "I remember being struck by the film and how beautiful and odd it was." After seeing it, he would periodically come across an article about the filmmaker and file it away in his head. "For about 10 years, I kept learning all these little things about Méliès," Selznick says. He learned that Méliès developed and built his own equipment; that during World War I, his films were melted down by the French army to make shoe soles, and forever after, he hated the sound of tapping heels on hard floors; and that after being driven out of the film business, Méliès ran a toy shop in the Montparnasse train station. Selznick later incorporated all these elements into his book.
Then two years ago, Selznick stumbled upon a review of the book Edison's Eve by Gaby Wood, about the history of automata, and found out it contained an entire chapter about Méliès and his work on the lifelike machines. "His collection of automata had been housed in a museum in Paris, but had all been thrown away," Selznick says, "and as soon as I read it, I had a very clear image of a boy finding these automata in the garbage." Thus our young Hugo Cabret was invented.
It took Selznick two years to complete the book. "You can't rush a story," he says. "It is so important to take the time it needs." These days, the author, who splits his time between Brooklyn and San Diego, is in the midst of a multi-city tour promoting the launch of Hugo. He is also working on the audio version of the book, taking on new illustrating projects and starting to do research for his next writing project. After all, Selznick is not your ordinary author—and if Hugo is any indication—his next book won't be ordinary either.
Director of Creative Services for MAC Cosmetics, Heidi Henneman is currently working on a picture book for all ages.