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'Hugo' author Brian Selznick in a 'Wonderstruck' mind-set

Brian Selznick's visual storytelling, first seen in 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret,' now a Martin Scorsese movie, pushes into new territory with 'Wonderstruck.'

November 24, 2011|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Writer Brian Selznick has released a new book "Wonderstruck." His last book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," is now a movie by Martin Scorcese.
Writer Brian Selznick has released a new book "Wonderstruck."… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

So here's Brian Selznick, on a Friday afternoon in Culver City, standing in the vestibule of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a grin of anticipation on his face. It was, after all, this storefront museum — "the museum as performance art," Selznick calls it — that inspired "Wonderstruck," his most recent novel for middle readers, which takes place, in part, at New York's Museum of Natural History and plays with the idea of the museum as what was once known as a wonder cabinet: a collection meant "to fill you, literally, with wonder, in the old-fashioned sense of amazement and awe."

That's the ethos of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which walks a line between fact and fiction, displaying both invented and authentic artifacts, challenging our sense of believability, asking how far we are willing to go.

"What's thrilling," Selznick says, as he begins to walk through the museum, stopping at exhibit after exhibit, "is that what's true and what isn't true, it's all the same. They're all fascinating stories, and they all move you in some way. It makes you think about that term, cabinet of wonders, and what wonder means. If a museum's job is to inspire you, this place does that job."

There's a metaphor in this, for Selznick is very much in the business of wonder himself, creating books that challenge our notions of how fiction (for young readers or otherwise) is supposed to work. His 2007 novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," which won a Caldecott Medal and was a National Book Award finalist, introduced an innovative strategy for blending words and images, interweaving narrative and picture sequences to tell two sides of a single story, in which an orphan, living in a Paris train station at the dawn of the 1930s, forges an unlikely friendship with the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès.

The book has just been turned into the movie "Hugo," Martin Scorsese's first foray into 3-D and his first work for kids. Yet even before Scorsese got involved, Selznick knew he wanted to experiment with the conventions of visual storytelling, to use "full double page spreads with one image covering the whole spread, and then, on the next page, to move the story forward by zooming in on something, or panning or editing, which echoes what happens in cinema."

For Selznick, this was a necessary challenge, since the book "has a lot to do with the early history of cinema," and comes coded "with all these old French movies, both in actual film stills and within my drawings, where I've hidden references to certain films."

He laughs, his square face animated behind a wisp of beard. "Of course," he goes on, "Scorsese got all that, and then he made a movie filled with references to the history of cinema, which is amazing because that's so much of what the story is about." Indeed, among the pleasures of the movie are its painstaking re-creations of Méliès' work, which was, as Selznick's novel tells us, once written off as lost.

"Wonderstruck" operates in much the same way as "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," juxtaposing prose and visual material, tracing the relationship between an orphaned boy and an older mentor, with whom he discovers an unknown bond. Unlike its predecessor, it involves two story lines that ultimately come together after existing, for much of the novel, in two distinct time periods: the 1920s and the 1970s.

"When it was time to do my next book," Selznick explains, "I wanted to take what I'd learned and do something new. First, I got the idea to tell two separate stories, one with words and one with pictures, and then I started collecting ideas."

The idea that stuck had to do with deafness, which became a major theme. Neither of the central characters — Ben, a Minnesota adolescent living with his aunt and uncle after the death of his mother, and Rose, who gazes at Manhattan from her home in 1920s Hoboken, longing for the city just beyond her reach — are able to hear, which presents certain narrative challenges, especially in the graphic sections of the book.

"I had seen a documentary called 'Through Deaf Eyes,'" Selznick recalls, "about the history of deaf culture, deaf education, and there was a quote: 'The deaf are the people of the eye.' So I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of a deaf person just with pictures. That way, how we experience their story echoes the way they experience their life. But it was difficult to figure out how to do that just with pictures, so, there are a lot of places where I open up the images to words. I have newspaper clippings, I have books, I have postcards, I have lots of things that are written within the drawn world."

This is the trick with "Wonderstruck" and "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," the issue of how far to push the boundaries, how much to include and how much to strip away. Still, at the heart of both books is an assurance about what visual storytelling can do.

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