Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is out in theaters today.
Selznick’s remarkable book won the 2008 Caldecott Medal (the first young adult novel to win the award for children’s book illustration), was a finalist for the National Book Award, and was chosen as the Best Illustrated Book of 2007 by The New York Times. Hugo is a unique hybrid–a picture book for older children, but also a graphic novel of sorts. The story is one of my personal favorites, and next to Goodnight Moon, it’s the book I’ve gifted most often to the young people in my life.
The book’s main character, Hugo, is an orphan, a clock keeper, and thief, who lives an undercover life in the walls of a busy Paris train station. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of Selznick’s intricate mystery.
If you haven’t read The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you are in for a treat. Selznick’s book is nothing less than a masterpiece (and “masterpiece” is not a term I use lightly). Like the best classics of children’s literature, the book will appeal to readers of all ages. Younger readers will enjoy the characters, the mystery, and striking drawings, and adults will appreciate the author’s homage to cinema, most particularly the films of French filmmaker Georges Méliès and his groundbreaking 1902 silent film Le voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon).
Brian Selznick (a first cousin, twice removed, of David O. Selznick and Myron Selznick), graduated from the Rhode Island School of Art and Design with the intention of becoming a set designer for the theater, but a job designing window displays at Eeyore’s Children’s Bookstore in New York City changed his mind. Working at the store became a crash course in children’s literature, and his first book, The Houdini Box, was published while working there.
Selznick’s career has come a long way since his job at the bookstore. In September, his latest book, Wonderstruck, was released, and today, Scorsese’s version of Hugo hits the big screen.
“I never expected anything like this,” Selznick told NJ.com. “I feel like I’m in the rarest position to be able to say I have a movie that’s as good as the book. It’s good in different ways, or better. The movie might be better than my book. The fact that I inspired Martin Scorcese to make this incredibly personal and beautiful movie is one of the great thrills of my life. It’s very satisfying to create something yourself, but it’s as satisfying or more satisfying to inspire someone else to make something new.”
If you’re a fan of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, you’ll also love Selznick’s latest project, Wonderstruck.
The novelty of Wonderstruck lies primarily in its structure. The story of Ben, a young boy who is struck deaf moments after discovering a clue to his father’s identity and travels to New York City to find him, is told through words. The parallel story of Rose, which takes place 50 years earlier, is told visually through Selznick’s original drawings. The two stories are woven together seamlessly. The desire to see how these two stories converge and connect creates a sense of mystery and an effective momentum.
The alternating tales of Ben and Rose were so compelling that I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I read the entire 637-page book in one sitting. Even as an adult reader, I was transported. Reading Wonderstruck reminded me of the formative reading experiences of my youth–of countless hours spent squirreled away reading The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, and The Hardy Boys.
Selznick spends significant time and energy researching his books, and Wonderstruck is no exception. The author weaves details about deaf culture, the New York theater scene in the 20s, museum dioramas, 20s fashion, the New York World’s Fair, and more into the narrative, which gives the story a realistic weight.
Selznick told NPR that the concept for Wonderstruck began forming when he saw a documentary about deafness and deaf culture. “One of the deaf educators emphasized how hyper-attuned deaf people are to the visual world. So Selznick set out to tell the story of a deaf character in pictures. ‘We experience [Rose's] story in a way that perhaps might echo the way she experiences her own life,’ he explains.”
When I spoke to Brian several years ago when the book was in progress, he was especially enthusiastic about a behind-the-scenes tour he had taken of the Museum of Natural History in New York City, one of his favorite destinations as a boy. The museum’s hidden storage rooms, attics, and basements excited him most. His idea to set part of the story in the building after hours predates the film Night at the Museum and was inspired instead by classic children’s books such as From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
While Selznick is a capable storyteller, it’s his drawings and cinematic style that make his books unique. His rich, detailed monochromatic illustrations are nothing less than extraordinary.
I particularly love the way he communicates movement through still images by zooming in or pulling away one image at a time. Each turn of the page artfully conveys movement and progresses the narrative, a technique that is reminiscent of another favorite book in my library–Charles and Ray Eames’ Power of Ten. (For more information on the art of page-turns, see author Remy Charlip’s comments below).
“I think from an early age I was aware of how a camera can tell a story, how a movie camera can affect how the narrative is told,” Selznick said in a recent interview. “I think when I’m drawing, I’m seeing what’s happening on the page almost as if it were unfolding like a movie in my head.”
Selznick is a gifted illustrator and knows how to make the most of his medium. It’s no accident that Scorcese chose Hugo for his first 3D film (perhaps his first film with no body count!). Both Scorcese and Selznick are talented visual storytellers. They share a love of cinema history, and a passion for the medium of film.
To commemorate the release of Scorsese’s film and Selznick’s Wonderstruck, I asked Brian to share a list of his own favorite books for children and young adults. There are some well-known classics on his list, but many surprises as well.
I know I’ll be adding The Arrival and The Juniper Tree to my own collection in the coming weeks and purchasing a few of these books as gifts for the holidays. (Note: A percentage of the purchases you make through this site benefit Gwarlingo).
A big “thank you” to Brian for sharing 20 of his favorite young adult and children’s books with Gwarlingo readers. There are a lot of great titles here to explore…
1 Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
When Brian sent me his list, he said the books were in no particular order with one exception: “All lists like this should start with Where the Wild Things Are.”
“I’ve always loved the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak,” Selznick explained in an interview, “because the words disappear, the pictures take up the whole page, and we move forward in the story by turning the pages. The more I thought about this idea, the more I thought how interesting it would be to have part of The Invention of Hugo Cabret told with pictures, because the story involves the early history of cinema. The pictures would be like a series of silent movies running throughout the book, helping to tell the story. When I got this idea, I had to go back and take OUT all the text that I was going to replace with pictures.”
It wasn’t until Brian talked about this classic book during a community presentation at The MacDowell Colony that I fully understood the brilliance of Sendak’s illustrations. Take a look at that tattered copy of Wild Things you have on your bookshelf and notice how Max is drawn in a small square at the beginning of the book while he’s in his bedroom and how that box expands and eventually disappears as the forest grows and Max leaves the safety of his home.
2 The Arrival by Shaun Tan
This may be my favorite discovery on Brian’s list. Tan’s illustrations are breathtaking, and it’s easy to see how Selznick would be drawn to Tan’s dramatic, monochrome illustrations. Both authors are interested in telling stories through images.
Here’s a review of The Arrival from School Library Journal: “Tan captures the displacement and awe with which immigrants respond to their new surroundings in this wordless graphic novel. It depicts the journey of one man, threatened by dark shapes that cast shadows on his family’s life, to a new country.
The only writing is in an invented alphabet, which creates the sensation immigrants must feel when they encounter a strange new language and way of life. A wide variety of ethnicities is represented in Tan’s hyper-realistic style, and the sense of warmth and caring for others, regardless of race, age, or background, is present on nearly every page. Young readers will be fascinated by the strange new world the artist creates, complete with floating elevators and unusual creatures, but may not realize the depth of meaning or understand what the man’s journey symbolizes. More sophisticated readers, however, will grasp the sense of strangeness and find themselves participating in the man’s experiences. They will linger over the details in the beautiful sepia pictures and will likely pick up the book to pore over it again and again.”
Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party.
Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away.
Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane.
Unfortunately, the motor exploded.
Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane.
Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute.
Poor Ned. What else could go wrong as he tries to get to the party? You’ll have to buy the book to find out.
Some fun trivia…Fans of Selznick’s work may recognize author, dancer, and choreographer Remy Charlip in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
“I was lucky enough to become friends with Remy a few years ago,” says Selznick, “and while I was working on The Invention of Hugo Cabret I realized that Remy looks a lot like Georges Méliès! I asked Remy if he would pose as Georges Méliès in my book, and he said yes. So all the pictures of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret are really drawings of Remy Charlip.”
Charlip’s ideas about book design have influenced Selznick’s own illustrations. Here’s Charlip on the importance of page-turns:
A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door. They could also be half-doors, doors with windows, double doors, like fold-outs, doors with attachments, pop-ups, textures or moving parts, and shaped doors.
Of course if a door has something completely different behind it, it is much more exciting. The element of delight and surprise is helped by the physical power we feel in our own hands when we move that page or door to reveal a change in everything that has gone before, in time, place, or character.
A thrilling picture book not only makes beautiful single images or sequential images, but also allows us to become aware of a book’s unique physical structure, by bringing our attention, once again, to that momentous moment: the turning of the page.
“One of my favorite books was The Borrowers by Mary Norton, about a family of little people that lived beneath the floorboards of a kid’s room,” says Selzick. “I thought it was a true story. I made miniature furniture for the Borrowers who lived in MY room, and left it out for them to use.”
Professor William Waterman Sherman just wants to be alone. So he decides to take a year off and spend it crossing the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon the likes of which no one has ever seen. But when he is found after just three weeks floating in the Atlantic among the wreckage of twenty hot-air balloons, naturally, the world is eager to know what happened. How did he end up with so many balloons . . . and in the wrong ocean? This children’s book classic won the 1948 Newbery Award.
When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere she wants to run to somewhere–to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and preferably elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing that her younger brother, Jamie, has money and thus can help her with the serious cash flow problem she invites him along.
Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie, find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at an auction for a bargain price of $250. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it? Claudia is determined to find out. This quest leads Claudia to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.
In the acknowledgements of Wonderstruck, Selznick says that “any story about kids who run away to a museum owes a debt of gratitude to E.L. Koningsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In order to pay back this debt, Wonderstruck is filled with references to Koningsburg and her book.”
Janusz Korczak was a Polish physician and educator who wrote over twenty books–his fiction was in his time as well known as Peter Pan, and his nonfiction works bore passionate messages of child advocacy. During World War II, the Jewish orphanage he directed was relocated to the Warsaw ghetto. Although Korczak’s celebrity afforded him many chances to escape, he refused to abandon the children. He was killed at Treblinka along with the children.
King Matt the First, one of Korczak’s most beloved tales, is the story of a boy who becomes king and sets out to reform his kingdom. He decrees that all children are to be given a piece of chocolate at the end of each day. He visits faraway lands and befriends cannibal kings. Whenever his ministers tell him something’s impossible, he puts them in jail. He disguises himself as a soldier and becomes a hero. But, as in real life, fantasy is tempered by reality: Matt’s fellow kings become jealous of his success–and in the end, Matt falls, although it’s clear that he was the greatest king there ever was.
Now this rediscovered classic is available again, and with a new cover illustration by Brian Selznick.
The title of The Stupids Die caused controversy with parents and some librarians when it first came out, and made James Marshall’s hilarious classic a perrenial favorite on “Most Banned Books” lists. The Stupids Die is a comedy of foolishness. The Stupids mistake an electrical blackout for the end of the world. The family stumbles around their house in the dark until Grandfather Stupid stops by for a visit:
“Welcome to heaven,” said Mr. Stupid.
“This isn’t heaven,” said Grandfather.
“This is Cleveland.”
“This may sound stupid,” said Buster.
“But I think this is our living room.”
Like all best friends, George and Martha do everything together–go to the movies, play at the beach, and just hang around not doing much of anything.
No matter that they happen to be gigantic hippopotami, they learn the same lessons humans do about the ups and downs of true friendship. George and Martha teach each other that even in a close friendship, privacy is important, practical jokes can sometimes backfire, and among other things, pouring split pea soup into your loafers to spare the chef’s feelings is not the best laid plan.
What’s remarkable about the stories in this wonderful collection is the emotion James Marshall infuses into his understated, charming text and illustrations. Each brief tale is always humorous, never preachy, and his drawings–deceptively simple in appearance–are guaranteed to spark feelings of empathy, delight, and self-recognition. Maurice Sendak, in his foreword to this 25th anniversary compilation edition of all 35 stories, notes, “Those dear, ditzy, down-to-earth hippos bring serious pleasure to everybody, not only to children. They are time-capsule hippos who will always remind us of a paradise in publishing and–both seriously and comically–of the true, durable meaning of friendship under the best and worst conditions.”
A magical book that has become an enduring children’s classic, The Red Balloon is the story of a young boy and his best friend–a bright red balloon.
Louis is a butcher. He has a nice shop on Flatbush, with steady customers. He’s “always friendly, always helpful, a wonderful guy.” But Louis is not happy. He hates meat! All his life he’s been surrounded by meat. His grandfather was a butcher. His father was a butcher. His whole childhood, even his birthdays, revolved aournd meat. As a boy he tried anythign to escape–even a job after school cleaning fishtanks.
“Wandering through the Natural History Museum with her grandchildren, Julia Creath feels the presence of her dead brother, Daniel, she remembers a time when fossil fever hit everyone, old and young — a time when people would kill for those old bones under the ground. Julia becomes the Nebraska farm girl she once was, as she weaves together the story of the great dinosaur rush — an adventurous tale of love and treachery, but most of all the story of her own childhood, and of the older brother she loved more than anything. Daniel had a dream that julia shared — and the she alone would see come true.”
A girl’s abiding love for her Nebraska home is shaken with the arrival of a frail young city woman who cannot endure the harsh pioneer life. Children may well appreciate modern medicine and communication, not to mention suburbia, after reading this poignant story.
Frog and Toad are always there for each other — just as best friends should be. From sledding in winter to eating ice cream on hot summer days, these two friends have fun together the whole year round. Some of their adventures include: attempting to fly a kite, cleaning Toad’s messy house as opposed to waiting until “Tomorrow” to do so, and figuring out the ethics of being “Alone.”
17-20 Maurice Sendak
There are more books by Maurice Sendak on Brian Selznick’s recommended list than any other author. In addition to Where the Wild Things Are, here are some of Selznick’s other Sendak favorites:
17 The Juniper Tree and other Tales from Grimm (Translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell)
Segal and Sendak “favor the odd, the pungent, the ambiguous; their Grimm has a salty, unfamiliar taste . . . Segal’s translations achieve the spoken quality the Grimms aimed for . . . Sendak’s drawings are monumental, hypnotic . . . I only wish the Segal-Sendak Grimm had existed when I was young.”– Walter Clemons, Newsweek
18 How Little Lori Visited Times Square by Amos Vogel (Illustrations by Maurice Sendak)
Poor little Lori. All he wants is to go see Times Square, but somehow he is thwarted every step of the way. First he takes a subway but gets out at South Ferry. Then he takes a bus but finds himself at 242nd Street. So he tries a taxi, and here’s what happens: The driver says, “Do you have enough money to pay me?” Lori answers, “What a silly question! I am much too little to have enough money for a taxi.” So the driver says, “Please get out then.” Will Lori ever get to Times Square? Maybe with a little help from a very… slow… moving… friend.
19 Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak
There was a sign on Rosie’s door that said, “If you want to know a secret, knock three times.” Kathy, Rosie’s good friend, knocked three times and learned the secret-that Rosie was no longer Rosie, but Alinda, the lovely lady singer.
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