DAVID GREENE, Host:
It's not all that often you hear of a writer who can illustrate his own books. Brian Selznick is that rare find. He began his career as an artist collaborating with authors on children's books, but eventually he realized he wanted to tell his own stories in both words and pictures. To do that, Selznick invented his own unique narrative device.
NPR's Lynn Neary will tell you about it.
LYNN NEARY: When Brian Selznick was a kid growing up in New Jersey, he loved when his parents took him into New York to visit the Museum of Natural History. As an adult, he was thrilled when he got a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the museum.
BRIAN SELZNICK: Many years ago, a friend of mine got a job at the Museum of Natural History, painting dioramas and building displays. And he invited me to come see the workshop, and so I got to go backstage and see all these secret rooms that the public doesn't get to see. And I remember thinking this would be a really great place to set a story.
NEARY: In Selznick's new book, "Wonderstruck", the Museum of Natural History plays a major role. A young boy searching for the father he never knew ends up finding shelter and comfort in the lifelike dioramas and hidden corners of the museum. "Wonderstruck" is both a novel and a picture book, a form Selznick first experimented with in "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," when he had the idea of telling a story in much the same way that film does.
SELZNICK: And I thought is there a way of combining what the cinema can do with panning, and zooming in and zooming out and edits, and what a picture book can do with page turns and what a novel does?
NEARY: Selznick's illustrations work like a camera, zooming in on details and following his characters around as they move through the world.
SELZNICK: Like in the beginning of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," you see a boy, you follow the boy. He disappears into a grate in the wall. You go down the hallway, you see an old man in a toy booth. You turn the page, he looks up. He sees a clock. You turn the page and behind the Number 5 in the clock, you see that boy. And then you turn the page and the text begins, and it says: From behind his perch, Hugo could see everything.
NEARY: In "Wonderstruck," Selznick wanted to take this narrative experiment a step further.
SELZNICK: And so I had this idea to try to tell two different stories. What if I told one story just with pictures, and then told a completely different story that was set 50 years later with words? And then had these two separate stories weave back and forth until they came together at the end.
NEARY: "Wonderstruck" is the story of Rose and Ben, a young boy and girl who live years and worlds apart. By the end of the book the reader learns they have a special connection. But from early on, they have one thing in common: She is deaf and he loses his hearing when he is struck by lightning.
SELZNICK: (Reading) In the distance he saw the blue telephone. It was off the hook and seemed to be smoldering. Then, through the windows, he saw something that seemed impossible. He saw rain, still pouring down from down from the sky, streaking hard against the glass. He saw lightning flash without thunder. How odd, he thought. The storm hadn't stopped - such quiet rain. It had been so loud before. Where had all the noise gone?
NEARY: Selznick says the idea for this book began forming when he saw a documentary about deafness and deaf culture
SELZNICK: One of the deaf educators that they quoted in the documentary said that deaf people are people of the eye, because most of the way a deaf person will communicate is visually. And so, suddenly I thought, oh, that makes perfect sense to tell a story about a deaf person visually. So if I have this picture story that is told only with drawings, I can have a character who's deaf, so that we experience her story in a way that perhaps might echo the way she experiences her own life.
NEARY: Rose's story, told almost entirely through Selznick's compelling black and white illustrations, alternates with Ben's story which unfolds in written form. After his mother dies and he loses his hearing, Ben sets out from his home in Minnesota to find his father. The only clue he has to his whereabouts is an old bookmark.
SELZNICK: (Reading) The bookmark was frayed at the edges, and on it was a black and white drawing of a storefront with books piled up in the window and spilling out of boxes and shelves on the sidewalk. A black cat sat listlessly near the door. The awning above the windows read: Kincaid Books. At the bottom were the store's address and phone number. Ben turned the bookmark over. In black ink someone had written: February 1965. Elaine, this piece of me is for you. Please call or write. I'll be waiting. Love, Danny.
NEARY: At first, the reader is not sure how Rose and Ben's stories relate. But here and there, the character's worlds collide. Both get caught in a storm, both go in search of their parents, both find refuge in the museum. When the two finally do meet, Selznick says, the book becomes all about how we communicate with each other.
SELZNICK: 'Cause at the end of the story, we have scenes where there's a deaf character who signs, a hearing character who signs, and a deaf character who doesn't sign. And they're all having to have a conversation. And so who speaks, who writes, who can sign, it all becomes mixed up until they just figure out a way to communicate.
NEARY: Creating these books is a complicated process, Selznick says. And he is always a little surprised in the end when everything comes together. Because, Selznick says, when he is in the middle of it, it's a little like looking for buried treasure
SELZNICK: It's sort of like going through a treasure map backwards in a certain way, where I know what I want it to be but I don't know how to get there. It does end up feeling like I have been on this really exciting journey that I ultimately hope the reader will feel excited to be on too.
NEARY: A writer and artist who is fascinated with film, Selznick is about to see a fantasy come true. In November, the film version of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," directed by Martin Scorsese, will be released.
Lynn Neary NPR News, Washington.
GREENE: To see Brian Selznick's words and pictures at work, visit our web site, NPR.org. You can also find excerpts from "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" and "Wonderstruck."