Monday, 2 July 2007

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick

I'll start by pointing out that I haven't read this book yet but it's next on my ever growing list. However, the way the book is being talked about is fascinating, I've put together some quotes and comments from reviews and an interview with Brian Selznick on the New York Times Book podcast (does anyone know how to reference a podcast?) Have a look at the website here you can watch an animated version of the opening sequence of drawings.

In the New York Times 'Book Update' podcast, the interviewer, Julie Just, describes the book as alternating between writing and very intricate drawings that "advance the story, not just ... decorate it". A 533 page book (300 are full bleed illustrations) set in 1930s Paris about a young boy who meets film maker Georges Melies, aimed at 'middle-grade readers' (young adult?) it draws inspiration from movies with very cinematic illustrative techniques (close ups, pans, establishing shots, etc ... language from film studies could be useful for me). Selznick says he was thinking about "the way the language of cinema tells its stories and thinking about how I could adapt that language within the form of the book." So, in some ways, this is an issue of translation - how do you translate a story about cinema onto the page? Some sections - the climatic chase scene is apparently a 36 page illustrated passage - are, in Selznick's words "like having small silent movies throughout".

Just asks him if he was tempted to produce the book as a graphic novel, to "toss out the words". He responds that he "loves the way graphic novels use pictures to help tell their story but what intrigued me more what the way picture books ... tell their story ...the way the act of turning the page in a picture book ... reveals something entirely new ... With a graphic novel you read them very much like regular novels [left to right, down the page, turn the page when you get to bottom right] but with picture books ... you turn the page because you need to see what is going to happen in the next moment of the story itself ... making every picture in the book a full double page spread and making the reader have to turn the page it puts the reader in a different kind of position than they would otherwise be with a book because they are actively involved in moving the story forward." Again, the notion of a reader needing to be 'active' to read visual elements in a book. Selznick talks about making the reader experience time the same way the character experience time in certain parts of the book, so it is active, and it is about the experience of reading. This is also returning to the idea of how important the medium is to the experience of reading. He has very consciously chosen this approach because it is the best way to tell his story.

But what does that make this book? It's not a graphic novel and it's not a picture book. An article from Publishers Weekly quotes:
Selznick's editor for the book, Tracy Mack, has never seen anything else quite like it. "As editors, we're always getting excited about something different, not different just for sake of being different, but truly new," she says. "This to me felt wholly different. It's not a graphic novel. It's not a film. It's more like a picture book where the illustrations are pushing beyond what the words say." ...
This is an editor describing what makes this book a new and unique storytelling form, rather than a novel with gimmicky typo/graphic elements. The article continues:
The original vision for Hugo was pretty standard: a 150-page book with an illustration in every chapter. But Selznick was determined to make this story about the roots of French cinema work visually. In revising, he listed every passage that didn't contain dialogue or the boy's thoughts. "Anything that was just a description, I replaced with a drawing." Mack, who studied painting herself, pushed him even further. "He had a long introduction to the train station [where Hugo secretly lives) but we needed to get to Hugo quicker. I told him, 'Just draw it.' He resisted because he had really come to like that piece of writing, but it wound up being so much better because the visual introduction imparts such a strong sense of place," she says. 'Drawn to cinema', Publishers Weekly, www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6417185.html
This is, perhaps, a technique that is acceptable mostly because of the readership - young adult books are 'allowed' to be more experimental as they 'graduate' from picture books to novels (I claim this from my experience of designing book covers - almost all my freelance work is now for young adult fiction because I am privileged with far greater creative freedom). Yet this combination of word and image can be a powerful and unique.
"So I was thinking about the role narrative illustrations play in chapter books. [from what I could find on the net, a chapter book is aimed at 9-12 year olds with one line drawing per chapter] Something in the illustration is usually referred to in the text, and usually you put something in the illustrations that adds to the story, but in almost all cases the pictures could be removed and the story would not suffer. That's not the case in picture books, and I was thinking especially about those books in which the words stop and the pictures absolutely take over, like the wild rumpus [from Where The Wild Things Are]...I mean, it's a book about movies. A movie is a visual experience...I asked myself, 'What if parts of the story were told only in the pictures? Could I take out some of the text and replace it with pictures?'" Sue Corbett, Children's Bookshelf -- Publishers Weekly, 1/4/2007
Selznick talks about drawing from scenes in French cinema - how better to pay homage to a visual medium than visually?

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