Everyone Grows Up: Jonathan Alexander and Brian Selznick in Conversation

By Jonathan AlexanderApril 19, 2017

Everyone Grows Up: Jonathan Alexander and Brian Selznick in Conversation
YEARS AGO, a colleague sent me a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with a little note imploring me to read it. He knew that, as someone who studied work that combined text and image to tell a story, I would be fascinated by Brian Selznick’s novel of a young boy stumbling across a toymaker who turns out to be early French filmmaker and special-effects artist Georges Méliès, creator of such early film classics as Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902). Selznick beautifully interweaves textual and visual narratives, with each integrally supplementing the other. The accomplishment is stunning: a multimodal work that powerfully recreates early 20th-century Paris in its tale of a boy discovering both a forgotten filmmaker and what he himself might yet become. Méliès at the time of the story had been neglected for some years, but Hugo’s “discovery” of him and his pursuit of a friendship with the older man sparks his own talent for invention, particularly his interest in crafting automata and other small machines. As a gay man who grew up in the deep South and faced significant hurdles in coming to terms with his sexuality, I saw in The Invention of Hugo Cabret not just a clever story cleverly told, but also a deep appreciation for kinship and affinity that extends beyond the nuclear family, as well as the value of appreciating the discarded, the neglected, and the dismissed. Put another way, The Invention of Hugo Cabret struck me as a very queer book in all the right ways.  

Since publishing the novel in 2007, Selznick has followed up with two other similar books, combining textual and visual storytelling to create enchanting reading experiences. Wonderstruck (2011), currently being made into a film by queer director Todd Haynes, offers the moving story of a young Deaf boy, Ben, who goes on a journey to New York to find out about his father, whom he never knew. An adventure in the American Museum of Natural History leads to all sorts of discoveries, including Ben’s grandmother, Rose (also Deaf), whose story we have been learning through the visual narrative. Rose fills in the gaps in Ben’s knowledge of his family and himself but not before Ben also makes new friends, especially a young boy named Jamie. Selznick’s subsequent book, The Marvels (2015), even more delightfully and fantastically presents us with Joseph, another kid running away from home, this time to find his Uncle Albert, who lives in a London house seemingly trapped in time, outfitted in grand Victorian style. We come to Joseph and Albert’s story, though, only after reading the first half of the novel, shown only in pictures, which features a multigenerational narrative about a family of actors, the Marvels, who come to prominence in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. We learn at the close of the book that the story of the Marvels is intimately tied to Albert and his now-deceased lover, their house a living monument to their creative storytelling.

In all of these books, we meet characters searching to learn more about themselves and discovering along the way how surprising and unexpected those searches can be. And in each case, we meet people who have had to piece together their families and kinship circles, sometimes through great adversity, to help them make sense and beauty out of their lives. Hugo, Ben, and Joseph each learn to tell their own stories through the help of unlikely folks rarely immediate family, but rather uncles, grandmothers, and friends who might not normally have been seen as sources of potential inspiration. Whether overtly queer or not, the stories point us to the power of the unexpected.

I recently had the chance to chat with Brian Selznick via email about his work and how he came to write such captivating and complex stories.


JONATHAN ALEXANDER: How did you get started writing books for kids? I know some of your earliest work was as an illustrator of stories written by others, so when and how did you decide to produce your own narratives?

BRIAN SELZNICK: I worked really hard in college not to be a children’s book illustrator. I wanted to be a set designer for the theater (as a young adult, I thought drawing for children would be beneath me). It wasn’t until after college that I realized children’s books would be the perfect form for me to work in. I’d always loved to draw, and I’d always loved telling stories. I got a job at a children’s bookstore called Eeyore’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and this became my education in children’s literature. My boss, Steve Geck, took me under his wing and sent me home every night with bags of books to read. This was where I really discovered classics like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, as well as the work of Richard Egielski, which influence me to this day. Steve and his girlfriend (now wife) Diana Blough helped me get my first book published. I showed Steve a book I was working on, hoping one day to publish it. It turned out Diana was the Manhattan Sales Rep for Random House, and she gave me the name of an editor there, Anne Schwartz. In the meantime, I sent my book out to several other publishers, but it was Anne who agreed to publish the book the way I wanted (an unusual 48-page picture book ... most are 32 pages … I was into hybrids even then). That book, The Houdini Box (1991), was published while I still worked at the store and remains in print 26 years after it first came out (I’m even working on a musical based on the story right now). In all these years I’ve never stopped loving what a book is capable of. I remain excited and thrilled by the discovery of what words and pictures can do together in the pages of a book, as well as what happens when those pages are turned. For a beautiful essay about the magic of the page turn, check out “A Page is a Door” by my friend and mentor Remy Charlip.

JA: Oh, I love The Houdini Box. The story of a kid who locks himself in closets and trunks to imitate his hero seems so boylike, reminding me of all the tie-up games the kids in our neighborhood would play with each other. Your longer books enhance the delight by telling multiple stories at one time. Indeed, your most recent three novels are “double stories,” in that there’s a narrative within a narrative, a story hiding within the overarching story. And usually that hidden story is about a hidden or secret space or person. I’m thinking of Georges Méliès’s forgotten films in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or the American Museum of Natural History in Wonderstruck, or the fabulous Victorian home in The Marvels, a home that has its own complex history and hidden story. Is it correct to think of these as “double stories” or stories about hidden places? What’s the attraction of the double or hidden place for you?

BS: I’ve always loved secret places. As a kid, I made club houses in the basement of our home in New Jersey, and I was obsessed with stories about hidden things, like Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, about a family of tiny people living secretly in a boy’s house, which I basically thought was a true story. I’ve recently become friends with James Lecesne, the founder of The Trevor Project, and he told me he also loved The Borrowers as a kid, and we felt a special bond remembering ourselves as young queer kids loving these books about tiny people who lived secretly among human beings and about the one boy who knew about them and was entrusted with their secret. Discussing the book with James was the first time I’d thought about The Borrowers as a queer text, but the parallels were unmistakable. Perhaps that is part of the reason that stories about secret places and hidden things appeal so much to me today, because they were so much a part of my identity as a child. But of course all children, not just queer ones, have secrets. Everyone has something that they keep to themselves, that they hide away, and that’s why I think these stories can feel universal.

JA: I sense this play of doubleness and hiddenness not just in the narratives but in your drawing as well. Your use of black and white — particularly your deployment of white spaces, such as candlelight contrasting with surrounding darker shades and shadows — creates a visual doubleness, or at least a set of often striking contrasts. But there’s also a lot of movement in and out, with several pages steadily focusing in on an image to see what’s there, such as a photograph on a tabletop, zeroing in on a particular couple in that photograph, a particular face. It’s almost as though you “narrate” your drawings to help us focus on what otherwise would be easily missed, or on things we might not pay attention to. That focusing of attention parallels the textual narratives’ focus on people or relationships that we might miss as important. What do you think? I’d love to hear anything you want to say about your drawing process and how it relates to your writing.

BS: The drawings in The Invention of Hugo Cabret were inspired by many things, but mostly by the wild rumpus in Where the Wild Things Are and the camera work of Alfred Hitchcock. Sendak’s book opens with a small drawing floating in a large sea of white space, and as you progress through the book (and Max’s journey), the drawings get bigger and bigger until the wild rumpus begins. At that point, the drawings have completely taken over the book (full-page bleeds) without any text. For four spreads the rumpus proceeds with no white space and no text. The action moves forward because you the reader turn the page. When I was working on Hugo, I wondered if there was a way to use the full-bleed illustrated spreads from the wild rumpus to move the story in a novel forward. And because my book had to do with the history of cinema, I thought it might be interesting if the drawings made the book feel like a black-and-white silent movie. I watched as many of Georges Méliès’s films as I could find, and I watched many movies from French cinematic history, especially the work of Jean Vigo and François Truffaut. Truffaut was a huge fan of Hitchcock’s and talked about the genius of his camera work, which made me look again at such classics as Psycho, Vertigo, Marnie, and Suspicion. I took note of how Hitchcock used the camera to help tell the story, zooming in on clues and important details, tracking through spaces and underscoring an action scene with detailed and complex editing. I wondered if there was a way for my drawings to echo these techniques.

JA: Your last three major books focus on boys trying to find their ways in occasionally indifferent, sometimes hostile worlds. They are sensitive young men, though, who are creative and use their creativity to find their way. These seem like stories creating an alternative kind of boyhood.

BS: Well … I don’t really think of these books that way. I just think of them as stories of childhood, and childhood is always challenging for the child. Yes, there are stereotypes relating to things that boys and girls are “supposed” to enjoy and ways they are “supposed” to behave, but if you talk to practically anyone you will find deviations from those norms. And often it’s these deviations that make people interesting. If you look at the characters of Hugo, Ben, and Joseph, it’s only Hugo who has something that marks him as truly exceptional, his gift for fixing machines. That is a true rarity and something that most children (and adults) do not possess. Ben likes to collect things and is brave, while Joseph loves reading, but these traits are very common among children. So Ben and Joseph are ordinary children who find themselves in extraordinary situations, while Hugo is an extraordinary child who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. But even Hugo, with his special skills, is still just a boy, with a child’s grasp on his own emotions, so he still must deal with his life as any other child might. I hope that makes sense! But I should add that while Hugo, Ben, and Joseph are main characters in each of these books, they share their stories with three other characters: Isabelle, Rose, and Frankie, three girls who are also (hopefully) complex and interesting people, with their own concerns, hopes, and needs that fall outside of what we might consider gender norms.

JA: All three of your major books position those boy protagonists as somehow needing, searching for, and finding alternative families. In The Marvels, an older gay man, who eventually dies of AIDS, becomes a central figure in a young man’s life — a young man who himself eventually identifies as gay. Am I right in sensing your interest broadly in alternative family forms and structures? And was it challenging to write a book, ostensibly for young people, that tackles gay identity so directly?

BS: If you were to have asked me what Hugo was about during the three years it took me to create that book, I would have said it’s about a boy living in the walls of a train station in Paris who meets an old man who was once a filmmaker. But after I was finished and on tour for the book, an adult reader came up to me and said, “I love that Hugo is about how we create our own families.” This surprised me, as I hadn’t thought about it like that. I have a friend who says that it’s the artist’s job to make the work and the audience’s job to tell them what it’s about. At the moment this reader spoke to me, I realized that Hugo was in fact about how we make our own families, even though I can’t say that was my conscious objective while working on the book.

For the most part, everyone grows up, leaves home, makes new friends, falls in love, and eventually forms their own families. When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I didn’t know any other gay people and felt very alone in certain ways, even though I had a loving family. It wasn’t until I got to college and then moved to New York that I met other gay people and discovered that gay people actually have a history, and a culture and famous icons. Many gay people make similar discoveries when they leave their biological home (though now with the internet and the nature of the world this discovery often happens much, much earlier). Either way, creating a new family is often a very key part of a gay person’s life, and it seems as if, without my realizing it, this idea has permeated not just Hugo, but all my work from the very beginning. Even my first book, The Houdini Box, is about a fatherless boy who is obsessed with Houdini, the magician who could famously escape from anything (including closets, as you mentioned).

So I think that all my work, in some way, has been influenced by my queerness, whether I realized it or not, but it wasn’t until The Marvels that I included characters who were actually gay. That book is inspired by two real people. There’s Dennis Severs, who was a gay man from California who fell in love with England and moved there in the 1970s. He created and curated an 18th-century house that is still open today, 17 years after his death from cancer. The other inspiration was Dennis’s great friend, David Milne, who took over the house when Dennis died and serves as its curator, cook, host, and guide. David is also gay and has told me incredible stories about his own life. Uncle Albert is mostly inspired by Dennis, and young Joseph is inspired by David. It would have felt dishonest not to make the characters gay, like Dennis and David.

JA: I would think your work is read not just by kids but by many adults. Indeed, I came to your books well into adulthood, but I find them captivating, compelling, and moving. I have to admit that I was moved to tears by the story of Joseph and his Uncle Albert in The Marvels. Growing up as a queer kid in the South, I had one uncle, Glen, a gay man, who died when I was only 12. Going to his house was always a treat because he and his partner had decked out each room in spectacular fashion, always changing to suit their creative impulses. Their bedroom I remember as particularly fabulous, with billowing sheets and string lights hanging from the ceiling. They offered me my first glimpse into a home that was created, not just inhabited — to a way of thinking about making a home for oneself through one’s creativity and interests. I often wonder what my life as a teenager would’ve been like had he survived. For yourself, what is the value of writing books that have such a powerful appeal both for kids and adults (or perhaps for the kid in the adult)?

BS: I love writing for kids. They are the best audience. They are honest and straightforward, and seem to be concerned mainly with story, as am I. When I write, I’m aware that my audience is children, yet I don’t expressly think about them when I write. Other than two concessions for kids (no cursing and no sex scenes), there’s nothing about the creation of my stories that is done to cater to children’s interests or needs. I write the stories that I find interesting, about situations and characters I am intrigued by, and I trust that if I find them interesting, so will the audience.

Every character I write, even if they are inspired by real people (Georges Méliès, Dennis Severs, David Milne, et cetera), also has elements of myself in them. I write about things that people often don’t learn about until college or afterward (French silent movies, Deaf culture, Cabinets of Wonder, the history of museums, 18th-century English theater, et cetera), yet the main characters in each of my books, the children who propel each of my stories forward, are compelled by these things and often love them, and therefore that love is hopefully transferred to the reader.

I expect children to pay attention when they are reading my work, to make connections, to figure things out, to learn. They have to step up. A lot is demanded of them inside the pages of one of these books, but all the elements are presented within the context of a story that I hope compels them and intrigues them enough to keep reading, no matter how strange or foreign the subject matter may seem. If it works, and the reader loves the story and the characters, they might also come away with a love of the things the characters love. Perhaps adult readers pick up on this and enjoy the stories for the same reasons.

And lastly, I wish I had known your Uncle Glen!


Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Alexander is the author, co-author, or co-editor of 22 books, including the Creep trilogy, which consists of Creep: A Life, A Theory, An Apology (finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, 2017); Bullied: The Story of an Abuse (2021); and Dear Queer Self: An Experiment in Memoir (2022). Other recent books include the memoir Stroke Book: The Diary of a Blindspot (2021) and the scholarly work Writing and Desire: Queer Ways of Composing (2023). Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!