All-Ages Reader: BRIAN SELZNICK is WONDERSTRUCK

All-Ages Reader: BRIAN SELZNICK Pt 1

We’re launching a new series here at Newsarama that we think is going to be a lot of fun. In it, we’re going to talk to people who have created works for all ages that also relate to the world of comics – sometimes in ways you wouldn’t expect.

In this, you’ll see some talks with children’s book creators who have stepped into the world of graphic novels, or combined comics and prose in unique ways. We’ve recruited some amazing comic book pros to talk with legendary illustrators. And as this goes on, we’ll talk with some creators in animation, some of the best-known creators of all-ages comics and more! We hope this will prove an opportunity for readers to discover some works they can enjoy with their kids – or just enjoy, period.

Before we begin our first interview in this series, here’s a taste of what’s coming up. First, Eisner-winner Rania Telgemeier talks with novelist Ann M. Martin about her Eisner-winning graphic novel Smile and adapting Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club.

And later, a number of comic pros, including The Goon’s Eric Powell, ask guest-questions of Chris Van Allsburg, author of The Polar Express and Jumanji, as we talk with him about his new anthology The Chronicles of Harris Burdick with Cory Doctorow, Stephen King and more; Word Girl developer Jack D. Ferraiolo discusses his novel Sidekick; and award-winning illustrator Matt Phelan talks his new graphic novel Around the World! And much more to come, only here at Newsarama!

But first, we’re talking with the creator of one of this fall’s biggest graphic novels…or is it

Brian Selznick won the Caldecott Award for best children’s illustrated book in 2008 with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was the basis for the upcoming film Hugo, directed by no less than Martin Scorsese. That book combined extended illustrated sequences with prose, and his new book, Wonderstruck, is even more ambitious, with silent illustrated sequences taking up more than 400 of the book’s 600-plus pages.

 

Wonderstruck
has enjoyed a huge release with a first printing of 500,000 copies – and has even reported sell-outs at a number of comic book shops. It’s a tale of two individuals decades apart, whose lives come together in a most unexpected way. In the prose sections, a recently-orphaned boy named Ben loses his hearing in a devastating accident, but also finds a clue about his long-lost father that sets him off on a dangerous journey.

Ben’s story is interwoven with a series of sequential sequences taking place as silent illustrations set 50 years in the past. There, a young girl named Rose sets off on her own journey as she escapes her prisonlike home and sets off for the city seeking a mysterious figure. Eventually, the two’s stories come together in an unexpected way that will change both their lives forever.

We called up Selznick to talk about Wonderstruck, the thought that went into the book, working with Martin Scorsese and more.

Newsarama: Brian, do you consider Wonderstruck at least in part a graphic novel?

Brian Seznick: I consider it related closely to a graphic novel. I’ve never known what to call Wonderstruck or The Invention of Hugo Cabret, because the inspiration for both works came from looking through my favorite picture books, like Where the Wild Things Are or Fortunately by Remy Charlip, which use the page turn as part of the narrative process.

That always really interested me in terms of what you can do with the page turn – the physical act and how it can be part of the storytelling, of the narrative. I’m interested in how stories are told, and I’d never really seen a novel that incorporated the page turn in the way that it’s used in picture books. So I guess in one way, Hugo and Wonderstruck are 600-page picture books, so there’s that.

But I love picture books, and I love graphic novels. I spend a lot of time looking at graphic novels and comic books, and seeing how stories are told visually – that was very important to me. Also, when writing Hugo, I read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, which was incredibly helpful to me, looking at the history of narrative storytelling and the visual language of comics.

The place where I break from graphic novels and comics is the boxes. Because I was interested in the page turn, what graphic novels do in certain ways is ask you to read the pages in a way that’s similar to novels that are all text.

Generally, with a graphic novel, you start in the upper-left-hand corner of the left-hand page, and work your way down to the lower-right-hand-corner of the left-hand-page, and then back up to the upper-left-hand-corner of the right-hand-page and work your way down to the lower-right-hand-corner of that page. And then because you’ve run out of stuff, you turn to the top of the next page to keep reading.

The page turn becomes an invisible act. It’s as if you don’t need it – if you had one long scroll, you would be having the same effect. And sometimes within graphic novels, they will use the page turn for a powerful moment or a big revelation so the page turn does become part of the narrative. But generally, the page turn, like a regular novel, isn’t employed in the same way as it would in a picture book.

So I think part of what I was trying to do with Hugo and Wonderstruck was taking those panel parts of a comic book and giving them to an entire double-page spread. Each panel is, on its own, a full-bleed double-page spread. So instead of looking from panel to panel like you have to do in a comic or graphic novel, you physically have to turn the page in order to get to the next image.

Perhaps it’s a slightly more interactive way of making a more graphic novel, so that the page turn makes you use time in a different way. It makes you have a different type of control over the story, and over the pictures themselves. Visually, there’s nothing on the page except for the one panel that I want you to be looking at.

I always think of book-making as a kind of control. I like to control what the viewer sees, where they’re looking, how they get the narrative. And so I think that’s how the book is related to graphic novels and comics, and how it differs. 

 

Nrama
: Looking at some of the sequential sequences, it’s very much like you’re either zooming in or pulling out like a shot in a movie.

Selznick: Yes. Because I’m using the sequential pages in as many different ways as I can. So I’m trying to imitate a picture book and graphic novels, but also what cinema does. I’m looking at the scene as though it’s through a camera – we zoom in, we pull out, we have some surprising edits from image to image, and sometimes we just follow a character as they move through various spaces, so as you turn the page in my books, you’re following the character from place to place, the way a camera in a silent movie might.

But any time there’s dialogue, or something the character should be thinking, or something the character should be smelling, or anything else that can’t be gotten across visually, I break from the picture sequence and go back to the text. So I’m still using what I can with the text, but I’m trying to balance it with what can be done with pictures.

Nrama: And this is a story about silence in many ways, so what you have with those sequences are very much point-of-view sequences.

Selznick: Yep. When I came out with Hugo, several people commented to me that one of the things that came up when they were reading the text was that you hear the words in a certain way in your head as a hearing reader, and then when they got to the pictures, everything went quiet, and they were able to follow the story in a different way, because your brain processes visual information differently.

So when I had the chance to tell the story of a deaf character with pictures, I wanted to embrace that idea of the silence, of the quiet, so that there could be something that echoes what the experience of this deaf character could possibly be.

When I was researching Wonderstruck and learning about this culture, there was a quote from a deaf educator who said that “deaf people are the people of the eye” – that culture is a visual culture, because you’re looking at someone who’s signing.

So the idea of telling the story of a deaf person in a way that might echo their experience seemed to make sense. I did want to embrace that kind of silence that comes with the picture sequences.

Nrama: That makes me wonder if there’s a large deaf fan base for comic books…

Selznick: That’s an interesting question! I’d like to ask some deaf people about that. That’s something I’ve never asked anybody.

Nrama: It’s a visual medium, but I can’t say I’ve met a deaf comic reader – but then again, there’s little I know about the community in general.

Selznick: That’s one of the things that struck me as a hearing person that crossed my mind when I started to tell this story, how much I needed to know about the deaf population. I started reading a lot of books, and my boyfriend happens to teach with two of the leading deaf scholars of linguistics in the country, Carol Padden and Tom Humphries – Carol is the first deaf person to receive a MacArthur genius grant.

They were incredibly generous with their time and vetted my manuscript, and gave me close and detailed notes about what I was writing that seemed accurate, and what seemed inaccurate and why it seemed inaccurate.

So I was able to try to make sure that all the facts that I was writing about with deaf history and culture felt accurate, along with the more subjective idea of the deaf experience, and what it’s like to be deaf, or what it would be like to be deaf for a hearing person.

Sometimes I had to make a wild leap – what would it be like if you lost your hearing? You might make certain assumptions about what it might be like, but there’s a wide leap between what you imagine might happen, and what actually happens. So they helped me navigate the waters between the general deaf experience and what the specific experience of my two main characters might be.

I’m writing about two fictional characters who are having their own fictional experiences, and why I want them to be true to the deaf experience, I also want them to be true to who they are as individuals, and that was the most important thing.

But I’m not necessarily writing to deaf people – I’m writing to people, and about these two people who are deaf, one of whom becomes deaf at age 12. But what I’m writing is two individuals and what happens to these people when they go out in the world and different things happen to them.

Carol and Tom helped me navigate those very difficult waters, and there were other deaf people I talked to, some of whom had once been hearing themselves, and that large group of people really helped me in writing the book. 

 

Nrama
: What was the biggest misconception about deafness you had before you started writing the book?

Selznick: The most interesting thing to me was when I imagined the boy becoming deaf when he’s 12, he’s a boy already deaf in one ear, like my brother. But my brother never in any way identifies himself as deaf or part of the deaf culture. He just turns his head so he can hear you. My boyfriend also has a friend who was born deaf in one ear, and she learned sign language and does consider herself part of the deaf community. So it was really interesting to determine how people identify themselves.

My character is born deaf in one ear, but he identifies himself as part of the hearing world. But during the story, he loses the hearing in his good ear, and I imagined when he wakes up in the hospital, your reaction is “Oh my god, I’m deaf! I can’t hear anything!” and you’re all freaked out.

When Carol and Tom read this, they said, “No no no, Brian – realizing you’re deaf is a process, it’s not something you realize immediately.” They told me this amazing story about this girl who had scarlet fever or something, and was sitting by the window and thinking of her mom, and her mom appeared, and she looked up and couldn’t figure out how her mom knew she’d been thinking of her.

But it turned out she’d been saying the word “Mother” out loud again and again, but because she was deaf, she didn’t realize she was saying it out loud. She discovered that she couldn’t hear. So that really transformed the way I had the boy wake up, and I had him discover slowly that he was deaf, and not have it be like a lightning strike.

There was also the scene at the end of the book where a deaf character who knows sign language has to tell 50 years of history to a deaf character who doesn’t know sign language. And the only way I could think of to deal with this was to have them write. So the first deaf character writes for like 20 pages!

When Carol and Tom read this, Carol said that was very unrealistic, because deaf people hate to write, and they prefer to write as little as possible. When they’re dealing with hearing people, they tend to get information by lip-reading, through context, through gestures, all these different ways. And she said, “No deaf person is going to sit there and write for 50 pages!”

I couldn’t think of a way around it – there was no other way for this character to relate 50 years of history without writing. And a few days later, Carol emailed me and said that she’d been thinking about this, and she’d remembered a time when her hearing uncle came to visit her deaf mother, and he wanted to tell them a family story, and they sat all day at the kitchen table writing.

In a way, when she told me that, it was as though I’d been given permission to keep that part of the story, to have this character do the writing. Because it’s not something they would do every day – this is a strange, special circumstance that holds for a special solution. So it made sense in this context.

Nrama: And you have to tie up the entire book with that revelation – you have all these little hints and mysteries that need to be resolved.

Selznick: Exactly. I felt happy when I knew that I would be able to end the book the way I felt that it needed to end, and that it would also feel realistic to a deaf reader.

Next: Brian Selznick talks about his favorite comics – and working with Martin Scorsese.

Wonderstruck is in stores now.

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