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Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books
Heidi K. Hammond
Gail D. Nordstrom
published by
Rowman & Littlefield
Local Bookseller
Barnes & Noble
Excerpt: The Invention of Hugo Cabret
pages 81-84 of Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books, copyright Heidi K. Hammond and Gail D. Nordstrom, published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2014
“I wanted to create a novel that read like a movie. What if this book, which is all about the history of cinema, somehow used the language of cinema to tell its story? How could I do this?”
Author/Illustrator: Brian Selznick
Style: Realistic
Medium: Pencil on Fabriano Artistico watercolor paper
In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian/ Selznick's pencil illustrations are intrinsic to the narrative, carrying the story forward in an unconventional and innovative manner. At a length of 533 pages, including 284 pages of illustrations, the work melds the formats of picture book, novel, graphic novel, flip book, and film. Given its size and length, the work does not resemble a typical picture book. Indeed, upon winning the Caldecott, it shattered the concept of the picture book.
The black-and-white illustrations are central to the fictional story, which revolves around early French cinema, timekeeping, automata, and magical illusion in 1931 Paris. The black borders around each page resemble film frames, reflecting an important element of the story. The double-page spreads vary from multipage sequences that depict an entire scene to single illustrations that highlight a significant moment. Selznick explains that he wanted to "recreate the experience of a movie in the turning of pages, to reflect in the page-turning what Hitchcock and Truffaut were doing with their cameras" (Vulliamy 2012).
Selznick uses crosshatching to create depth, shadow, and texture. The illustrations are generally more dark than light, capturing the mood of this story of a boy who is trying to uncover secrets and a filmmaker who is hiding many.
The first chapter opens with twenty-one wordless spreads that set the scene. In cinematic style, the illustrations pull back from a full moon to an aerial view of Paris, to daybreak over the city, to a train station, to a boy in a crowd. Heightening the sense of anticipation, these images gradually fill the page until the boy emerges, looking over his shoulder in a close-up view. Through shifting perspectives over several pages, the reader see's the boy's hidden passageway and a man in a toy booth. This visual sequence ends up with a close-up of the boy, looking out from behind a large clock to the shop owner and girl at 1:27 in the afternoon. By the chapter's conclusion, Selznick introduces the three main characters and the automaton, always ending with a close-up of their expressive eyes, similar to a technique used in early silent films.
Stand-alone illustrations depict dramatic moments. For example, on pages 230-231, Hugo holds a heart-shaped key first show in chapter 9; with this stolen key, Hugo can wind the automaton. On pages 252-253 and 260-261, after much suspense, Selznick reveals the automaton's finished drawing and a surprising signature in single images.
A series of three drawings on pages 398-403, shows the illustrator's crosshatching skills. He plays with light and shadow as Isabelle begins to pick a lock. Pencil lines are soft but defined. The reader's eye moves from lock to hairpin to hand, all in subtle light. In the following spread, light shines on the lock, leaving fingers in shadow. Finally, Hugo's and Isabelle's clean profiles lead to the turning doorknob. Details like stray hairs and seams in the wood point out the realistic nature of the artwork.
Brian Selznick's highly visual narrative reflects the era of early filmmaking that is central to the plot, demonstrating the Caldecott criterion of "excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept." The black-and-white drawings with perspectives that evoke cinematic techniques are an "[appropriate] style of illustration to the story, theme or concept." The varied pacing of this heavily illustrated hybrid denotes "excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience." In merging text, drawings, and film, Selznick's distinguished work redefines storytelling.
Selznick originally wrote the book as a standard 150-page novel with an illustration for each chapter. When he decided that he "wanted to tell the story like a silent movie" (Selznick 2012), he began revising the book to include illustrations to take the place of descriptive passages. Editor Tracy Mack suggested that he open the book with images rather than words.
The artist's original drawings for the book are three by five inches, and he did much of the work under a magnifying glass. When enlarged to fill the pages, the pencil line softened.
Images of the moon recur frequently, most notably in the opening and ending sequences. The automaton's moon drawing is a classic scene from Méliè's film A Trip to the Moon. A still from the actual film appears on pages 352-53.
Clocks and watches are significant to the story. In fact, the book is organized into two parts, both with twelve chapters, reflecting the turning hands of a clock over twenty-four hours.
While atypical in format and design, The Invention of Hugo Cabret satisfies the Caldecott definition that a picture book, "as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of storyline, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised." By Caldecott definition, children are "persons of ages up to and including 14 and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered" (ALSC 2009, 10).
Selznick won a 2002 Caldecott Honor for The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins.
After illustrating a string of picture biographies for children, Selznick explains, "I came to an impasse. I needed some kind of change, even though I didn't know what exactly. Something about my work wasn't satisfying me," and for six months he stopped illustrating as "everything to a standstill" (Selznick 2008, 10).
During that time, Selznick began a friendship with Maurice Sendak, who felt that the young illustrator did good work but hadn't reached his full potential. Sendak imparted this advice to Selznick: "Make the book you want to make." (Selznick 2008, 10). Selznick, who had long been interested in older films, discovered automata and their connections to French filmmaker Georges Méliè. The idea for the story took hold. Only after beginning the novel did the book's format evolve.
Assocation for Library Service to Children (ALSC). 2009. Randolph Caldecott Medal Committee Manual.
Selznick, Brian. 2008. "Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech: Make the Book You Want to Write." Children and Libraries 6 (2): 10-12.
—. January 11, 2012. "Flavor of Words: Brian Selznick and Paul O. Zelinsky in Correspondence." Pen America.
Vulliamy, Ed. February 11, 2012. "Brian Selznick: How Scorcese's Hugo Drew Inspiration from His Magical Book." Guardian.
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