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'Hugo' author's latest leaves readers 'Wonderstruck'

By Christian DuChateau, CNN
updated 3:09 PM EST, Fri November 18, 2011
Author Brian Selznick's 2007 book,
Author Brian Selznick's 2007 book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," has sold millions of copies.
  • Brian Selznick translates the deaf experience through pictorial narrative
  • Silent movies inspire the author, who is related to David O. Selznick
  • The film adaption of "Hugo" releases in theaters this month

(CNN) -- No name in children's literature is hotter right now than Brian Selznick, and his new book "Wonderstruck" proves that, in some cases, maybe lightning does strike twice.

Selznick has been an author and illustrator for young readers for 20 years.

His 2007 book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," has sold millions of copies and won a slew of awards including the Caldecott medal, the highest honor for a children's book. And a big budget movie adaptation directed by Oscar winner Martin Scorsese arrives on the big screen next week.

Now comes Selznick's newest, "Wonderstruck."

It also sailed to the top of the best-seller lists and is winning widespread critical praise. Like "Hugo," it features Selznick's unique storytelling style of mixing words with richly drawn black and white pictures. However, "Wonderstruck" is even more ambitious, clocking in at more than 600 pages.

It tells two stories set 50 years apart about Ben and Rose, two kids who are trying to figure out their place in the world.

Ben's story is set in 1977 and told entirely with words. Rose's story takes place in 1927 and is told entirely through pictures. Don't let the book's length fool you, both plot lines are thrilling and fast-paced, stretching from the snow-swept prairies of Minnesota to the skyscraper heart of New York City.

Silent movies and specifically deaf culture play a key role in the book. What "Hugo Cabret" did for early French cinema, here Selznick reveals a further love of history, specifically for several famous New York City museums. In "Wonderstruck," Ben's and Rose's adventures weave back and forth before coming together in a creative and heartfelt climax.

While the book is aimed at children, this is a story for readers of all ages. Selznick just wrapped up a national tour to promote the book. CNN recently spoke to him about his success. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: What was the spark behind "Wonderstruck?"

Selznick: It really began when I was working on "Hugo." I saw a documentary film called "Through Deaf Eyes" and there were a couple things in it I found particularly interesting.

One was an interview with a young deaf man who had been raised in a hearing household and he talked about how it wasn't until he went away to college and met other deaf people that he realized he was part of this larger community, this larger culture that he had been born into, that was really fascinating to me.

There was also a section about the transition from silent movies to sound and how this was a tragedy for the deaf community because with silent movies deaf audiences and hearing audiences could understand the same movies but after the transition to sound, the deaf audiences couldn't follow the stories anymore.

When I finished "Hugo," I wanted to take what I had learned in terms of telling a story with words and pictures and try to do something new with it.

I had the idea to tell two different stories, one with words, one with pictures. In trying to figure out what story would make sense just with pictures, I remembered "Through Deaf Eyes," and I thought it might be interesting to tell the story of a deaf person in a way that echoes how they experience their own life, so you would get their entire story visually.

The plot just kind of grew from there.

I knew I wanted to set one story in 1927, so I could have the transition from silent to sound movies be part of the plot, and the other story I set in 1977 was when I was a kid in New Jersey growing up and I added many elements from my own childhood. So I built the plot simultaneously as I was writing and illustrating the book.

CNN: On the surface, your new book looks similar in style to "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," but I know you were aiming for some important differences?

Selznick: If you pick up "Wonderstruck" and just flip through it, it will look exactly the same as "Hugo" but you have these two different narratives, you have the picture story and the words story separated by 50 years and completely different characters.

My goal with "Hugo" had been to tell one single story with words and pictures so when you finished the book you wouldn't remember which parts had been written and which parts had been told with pictures. I wanted the words and pictures to blend together in your mind to form a single narrative.

With "Wonderstruck," I wanted to see if I could tell these two completely separate stories ,but have them weave together until they joined up at the end. So the reading experience of the two books is very different.

CNN: "Wonderstruck" is even more ambitious than "Hugo." How big a challenge was it?

Selznick: When I was starting to work on "Wonderstruck," it was exponentially harder because I had these completely different narratives, plus telling a story purely with words was something I hadn't done before. I'd always relied on pictures.

In "Hugo" there's very little description, most of the description takes place in the pictures. In "Wonderstruck," Ben's entire story is told in text, while Rose's story is entirely done with pictures. I wanted the pictures in Rose's story to echo some of the moments in Ben's story.

When you read the book, hopefully the pictures from Rose's story help you visualize what's going on in Ben's story and similarly some of the emotional things that I describe for Ben might help you understand what's going with Rose in her picture story.

CNN: Have you had any reaction from members of the deaf community to the book?

Selznick: It's been really wonderful. I've had many members of the deaf community help me make the book. Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, who are two of the leading deaf scholars in the country, were very generous and read my manuscript and helped me make sure everything I was writing and illustrating felt as accurate as possible.

When I went on my book tour for "Wonderstruck," which took me all over America, almost all of my presentations were interpreted with sign language for deaf audience members, and the response was very positive.

My goal was to just tell a somewhat unusual story where the characters deafness isn't there to teach a lesson; it's just part of their lives.

Of course, their being deaf plays into larger themes in the book, about finding your community and how we communicate but these are ideas hearing people and deaf people share. The real issues the kids are dealing with in the book, where they belong, who their family is, what their relationship is to their parents, I think these are things everybody experiences.

CNN: There's a very cinematic effect to your storytelling style. How did you arrive at this?

Selznick: I think I've always liked the movies. I'm related to David O. Selznick who made, "Gone With the Wind" and "King Kong."

When I was a kid, I loved seeing my last name at the beginning and end of these movies. I think whenever I'm illustrating a book, even if it's for another author, I'm thinking about the best way to visually get across a part of the story.

As I was making "Hugo," I started off just writing the text. I didn't know how I was going to illustrate it, but I was watching a lot of silent movies, a lot of French films from the 1930s, and I started thinking about how the camera works, the way it can zoom in, the way it can pan, the way you can edit, and I started seeing a lot of connections between how the camera tells a story and what happens in picture books for younger readers.

Visually something can change every time you turn the page, but I hadn't really seen this technique exploited for older readers. So I went back and started to take out sections of text from "Hugo" and replace them with picture sequences. So instead of just reading the words, "Hugo followed the old man home," I replaced it with 12 pages of pictures, so you're turning the pages and following Hugo through the streets of Paris.

The pictures become a movie camera. I really wanted the book to feel like a black and white silent movie. The book's about the early history of cinema, so it made sense to tell the story in a way that echoes what cinema itself can do.

CNN: A movie adaptation of "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" releases in theaters this month. Have you seen the movie?

Selznick: I've seen two rough cuts of the movie, and I think it's absolutely stunning. It's incredibly beautiful, a very faithful adaptation of my book. If anything, my story makes more sense as a movie because it's in large part about the history of cinema.

Director Martin Scorsese is working in 3D in the movie, using it in a way I don't think anyone has before. James Cameron, who really pioneered the use of 3D technology in "Avatar," calls "Hugo" a masterpiece, and I quite agree. As the author of the original book, it's extremely gratifying because there are sequences throughout the movie where Scorsese's camera followed my picture sequences exactly. The book is all there on the screen, yet it all feels very much like a movie.

CNN: What's next for you?

Selznick: I've already started writing my next book. I have an idea for when it's going to be set and who the characters are. The one thing I haven't quite figured out yet is how I'm going to illustrate it. I had an idea that maybe I would not illustrate this book, maybe I would just write a novel. For me, that would be very radical, but there are a lot of things in this story I do want to draw. One of the challenges is figuring out why a book is illustrated, how are the pictures being used?

So it's challenging but exciting as well. It will probably be another big, massive, illustrated novel that will take three years to finish.

So we'll see how it turns out in a couple of years.

See the book trailer and a get a sneak peek at some of Selznick's illustrations from "Wonderstruck."

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