Out and About with Brian Selznick

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Photo Courtesy of Rochelle Melander

Every once in a while, you have one of those experiences that will live in your memory for a long time to come. I had one of those moments Monday night, when I finally met Brian Selznick in person.

In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Brian is the Caldecott-winning illustrator (and author) of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was ground-breaking in its long novel format told with full-page illustrations interspersed with chapters of text. Selznick followed this breakthrough work with Wonderstruck and now The Marvels.

Both of these later works also use the “picture novel” format as Hugo Cabret but play with the insertions of text in different and interesting ways.

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On Monday night, my friend and fellow writer Rochelle and I joined a crowd at the Pitman Theater at Alverno College to hear Selznick share about his creative process. The results, sponsored by our wonderful local Boswell Books, were truly enchanting.

Passionate about theater and history, Selznick owned the stage with his charming personality and gift for explaining things (like his artistic process) clearly to children without ever talking down to them.

Add to that a clever presentation filled with his art and pictures of the places in London that inspired The Marvels, all topped off by his hand-made book trailer for The Marvels, which features a toy theater and old-fashioned set techniques that took him and a small team of friends a month to produce.

If it weren’t already apparent in his works, Brian Selznick hasn’t forgotten how to view the world like a child. Through his eyes, we see the world in new ways.

For me, this was an especially personal event, because The Invention of Hugo Cabret first planted the idea in my mind that I could bring words and pictures together in new and different ways. The seed took years to blossom, but when it did, I turned to pencil: a medium I knew well and one which Selznick is clearly a master of.

(We learned, by the way, that he works on tiny panels under a magnifying glass, which are then blown up to create the actual book pages. Mind blowing!)

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The title of my graphic novel, The (Re)Invention of Alethia Grey is a nod to Hugo Cabret, even though the subject matter, and even the term “invention,” mean something entirely different in my story than in Selznick’s.

So naturally, I jumped at the chance to meet the mind behind this story that had meant so much in my life personally. I’ll never forget the way I felt the first time I opened and read the novel in the East Library.

I still remember that day, that feeling. Even the place I was sitting, and the way I gasped when I saw the first chapter of pictures bleed into a chapter of traditional text.

That is the power of Selznick’s storytelling.

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And speaking of stories, he told us one about Hugo Cabret: how in his early days as a book illustrator (not writer) he had sent the venerable Maurice Sendak a box of his books. Sendak had looked through them carefully and then called Selznick to say that while the work “showed promise,” he believed that the artist was capable of so much more.

Several years later, when Hugo Cabret came out, Sendak told Selznick, “Brian, this is the book I’ve been waiting for from you.”

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Photo Courtesy of Troy Freund

Perhaps part of what makes Selznick’s work so charming is how much of himself he adds to the story. “I can put all of my favorite things in my stories,” he told us, smiling, as he showed a sculptural model of New York City that has always delighted him.

That model, of course, appeared in Wonderstruck.

All of this is contingent on making work that really matters to us personally. “Make the book you want to make,” Selznick told us on Monday night. “That’s the one that really matters.”

Photo Credit Troy Freund

Photo Credit Troy Freund

Thankfully, he shared a little bit more with us about how he makes his. Turns out that Selznick starts his projects with years of research, visits to historical places, and sketches. He then creates teeny-tiny (thumb-sized!) pages of the art in order to see how well or not the story is flowing. Once those are working well, he plans the full-size version of the art, which is actually only sized to half a sheet of paper.

From there, it will be photographed properly and scaled up to the final page size of his books. As they are finished, the pieces are hung on magnetic strips on the walls of his studio. He is able to visually measure his progress as those strips begin to fill.

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He also showed us really edited drafts of the text for The Marvels, demonstrating how many rounds of revisions and changes each text goes through with his editor to create the final.

I took a lot of notes and pictures during the presentation to help me think through my own process for the next volume of Alethia Grey. Historical details will become more important as the story moves back in time to 1880s Milwaukee, and while I don’t have Selznick’s years of time or budget to do research, I certainly have access to fantastic resources like the Milwaukee Historical Society photo collection.

And maybe this time I’ll plan my pages out (just slightly) in advance?

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Photo courtesy of Troy Freund

At the end of the night, Rochelle and I waited in a long line to meet Brian Selznick personally and have our copies of The Marvels signed. I also made a thank-you card, complete with a piece of ink artwork, thanking him for the impact his work has had on mine.

It’s terrifying to give something small you’ve made to someone who’s made such an impact on your life. In fact, I almost didn’t give him the card because it felt so unworthy compared to the depth and skill of his.

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But if I’ve learned anything over the past few months of returning to art, it’s that when you have a creative impulse, act on it. And the act of thanking someone else for their work, and letting them know it mattered to you, is never out of line. Especially when your Inner Mentor tells you to.

So I gave the card. Expressed my thanks. Got the signature and the handshake.

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Photo Courtesy of Rochelle Melander

It was two minutes of pure joy, and a whole lot of incentive to go and make more art.

Because once upon a time, Brian Selznick took Maurice Sendak’s advice made the book he really wanted to make.

How can I do any less?

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