Selznick is also the author of Wonderstruck and many other illustrated books; The Invention of Hugo Cabret was adapted by Martin Scorsese into an Oscar-winning film, Hugo. He lives in Brooklyn and San Diego, and spoke to me by phone.
Brian Selznick: Early on, I never thought I’d want to illustrate children’s books. In high school, I associated them with cute, talking animals—and when people suggested I might grow up to illustrate books for kids, as they often did, I always felt vaguely insulted. Later, when I went to art school, there were many famous illustrators on the faculty, but I never took classes with them. Even Maurice Sendak visited, but I didn’t go to hear him speak. I had never read his work as a child, and I wasn’t sophisticated enough to think about what else the form might be able to do.
I went through college thinking I was going to be a set designer for the theatre. But after graduation, I ended up getting a job at Eeyore’s Books for Children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There, my life took a very different direction than I had anticipated. It was at Eeyore’s that I first sat down with Where the Wild Things Are, and fell completely in love with it. The key to everything I wanted to do, it turned out, was between the covers of that book.
I felt drawn to Where the Wild Things Are even before I opened it. The title is so intriguing, and the cover is beautiful. The book is a great size, with nice matte paper on the jacket, and it feels good in your hands. It is, of course, a great fantasy story: A boy goes to this place where the wild things are, conquers them, becomes king of them, and then makes the decision to leave and go home to the place where he’s loved best. I found myself deeply affected by the way the page-turns work, by the way the illustrations themselves change in size and shape as the story progresses.
On that first reading, I think I intuitively understood the way the book’s layout and its story play off each other, two equally important parts—how the structure of the book is in many ways the same thing as the story being told.
If you go back and look at Where the Wild Things Are, you’ll notice that every element of the book’s design helps to tell the story of this little boy named Max. The very first drawing, which depicts Max misbehaving in his house, is just a little tiny rectangle on a big sea of white space. The adjacent text says:
The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind
As you turn the page, the illustration is another small rectangle, with text that says:
But as he is sent to his room, and as his room begins to transform into the forest around him, the drawings themselves begin to take up more space. Each time you turn the page, they grow and grow. By the time he is in the land of the wild things, the text has been pushed to the edge of the page. And when the wild rumpus begins—the famous, wordless section where Max and the wild things revel in the woods—there is no more white space, and no more text. The drawings themselves have taken over and are bleeding over all four sides of the open book.