A Novel Form of Storytelling

Each year the American Library Association awards the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. Historically, the artist has illustrated shorter classics for younger readers: "Make Way for Ducklings," "Owl Moon" and "The Polar Express." But this week the ALA gave the honor to author-illustrator Brian Selznick for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," a 533-page book for 9-to-12-year-olds. Selznick uses words on some pages, and black-and-white pencil drawings on others, to tell the tale of a 12-year-old orphan who lives in the walls of a Paris train station and tries to finish his dead father's mysterious invention. In the process, the fictional boy meets a real silent filmmaker, George Méliès, who's working in the station's toy shop. NEWSWEEK's Karen Springen talks with Selznick:

NEWSWEEK: You wrote and illustrated your first book, "The Houdini Box," in 1991. But with "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" winning the Caldecott, do you feel like an overnight success story at 41?
Brian Selznick: I still feel excited about the idea that anybody looks at a book that I make. I started out as a bookseller. When my first book came out, I was working at Eeyore's Books for Children in New York City [which no longer exists]. I would secretly hand sell it to people! So much of what I know about books, how I think about books, is related to what I learned at that store. There's no one kind of book that kids read, just like there's no one kind of book that adults read. People used to come into the store and say, "Hey, I want to write a book for kids—what's selling?" At first, I'd be like, "I guess circus books sell." But it's not a matter of thinking about what the audience wants. It's a matter of thinking about what story it is you want to tell. When I was working on "Hugo," people would say, "You're making a book about French silent movies?" I was like, "It does sound like a terrible idea." I brought this up with my editor, Tracy Mack at Scholastic. She said if these subjects are interesting to the main character, then they'll be interesting to the reader. Tracy was right. Now to meet kids who want to see silent movies and ask for them after reading the book is just completely wonderful.

In "Hugo," your pictures give new information, rather than just illustrating what the words have already told the reader. Is that a first, and how did you come up with the idea?
I can't say if it's a first. It's not something specifically that I had seen myself. I was trying to figure out how to tell the story in a way that would be best for the story itself. It came out of the movies that I watched and out of the picture books that I've made, and because I wanted the book to really be like a movie.

How did George Méliès inspire your story?
Years ago, I saw "A Trip to the Moon" [one of the very earliest films, made in 1902] and found out it was by this guy George Méliès. Every once in a while I would come across Méliès's name and find out some interesting tidbit about him. About four years ago, I was reading a book called "Edison's Eve," about the history of automata. There was a whole chapter on George Méliès that says he had a collection of automata that he had to donate to a museum, but they ended up being destroyed because they sat up in an attic. This image of this pile of broken, rusty machines really got to me. I immediately pictured a kid finding one of those broken machines and trying to fix it. I realized that that was the beginning of a story. I wanted to know who the kid was, and I wanted to know why he thought he could fix one of these machines. And I wanted to know what the machine would do once it was fixed.

Why is the book called "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"?
We had a really hard time coming up with a title. It was called "The Ghost of Paris" for a while. But then it's not really a ghost story. And then I was going to call it "King of the Moon," but Scholastic thought it made it sound like it was for younger kids. A friend of mine suggested "The Inventor" because Hugo invented things. Then I thought of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," and that seemed right because it had several different meanings. Hugo finds himself. It's how he puts together a world for himself. At the very end of the book, we find out that the book that we're reading is actually written by an automaton that Hugo invents. I wanted it to be that at the end, you would find out that the book you're holding actually is the result of the invention that Hugo has created. At the end of the story, you find out that the book itself is part of the story.

How did you come up with the name "Hugo Cabret"?
Hugo is actually named for a toy that I had when I was a kid called Hugo: Man of 1,000 Faces. He comes with all of these prosthetic facial features, like wigs and mustaches that you could glue onto his face to make him into a disguise, and you could also glue them onto your own face. I thought Hugo sounded kind of French. That was going to be his temporary name. After working on the book for two and a half years, he was just Hugo. Cabret I just made up. It's very rare, but there was a French mathematician with that name. I just liked the way it sounded.

How does it feel to have Martin Scorsese planning to direct a movie of "Hugo"?
It feels really great and really incredible. John Logan is writing the script. He wrote "The Aviator." I have seen the first draft, and it's really good so far. It's just a thrill to know I made something that Martin Scorsese likes.

Your book already makes readers feel like they're watching a movie. NPR even said it "unfurls like a silent film." How is Scorsese going to handle that?
Scorsese is also a scholar of film history. So his movies are filled with references to the history of cinema. Throughout "Hugo," I'm making all these references to movies. I know that when Scorsese was reading my book, he saw the scene of Hugo with his turtleneck pulled up over his neck in jail, and he said "that's Antoine Doinel from 'The 400 Blows' by Francois Truffaut." In the cinema, we'd actually be able to see that clip.

What made you decide to set the story in a Parisian train station in 1931?
That came directly out of Méliès' biography. He really did lose all of his money and end up working in a Parisian train shop in 1931. All of the stuff about Méliès and his films being melted down, and his parents owning a shoe factory, that's all true.

Your Web site, theinventionofhugocabret.com, includes a bunch of links to "friends' sites" (Robert Sabuda, Mo Willems, Andrew Clements, Paul Zelinsky) and to "weird websites I like" ("click here to see an artist who does amazing things with cut paper" http://www.petercallesen.com/ ). Do you surf the Web a lot?
I surf the Web, and I have friends who search the Web and send me excellent links. I've always liked these little strange tidbits that could lead to stories.

Can you tell us what your next book is about?
I don't quite know yet. I have a couple of ideas, and I'm finishing up illustrations for the third "Doll People" book. When that's done, hopefully next week, I'll be able to dive into figuring out what the next book is going to be. I'd like it to be something that's illustrated along the lines of "Hugo," but it won't be about the cinema. The reason for the use of the pictures will have to change.

You won't do "Hugo Part II"?
As far as I know, there's not going to be a sequel to "Hugo" because everything I wanted to have happen to Hugo happened to him.