Selznick, Brian 1966–
Selznick, Brian 1966–
Born July 14, 1966, in NJ; son of Roger (an accountant) and Lynn (a homemaker) Selznick. Education:Rhode Island School of Design, B.F.A., 1988. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish. Hobbies and other interests: Movies, puppetry, travel.
Home—Brooklyn, NY. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Scholastic Press, 557 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.
Eeyore's Books for Children, New York, NY, bookseller and painter of window displays, 1988–91; writer and illustrator of children's books, 1991–.
Texas Bluebonnet Award, and Rhode Island Children's Book Award, both 1993, both for The Houdini Box; Christopher Award (with Andrew Clements), 1996, for Frindle; American Library Association Notable Children's Book designation, and Book Sense Honor Book citation, both 1999, both for Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride; Orbis Pictus Honor Book designation, and Caldecot Honor, both 2002, both for The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley; Orbis Pictus Award, 2003, for When Marion Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan; Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award Honor Book, 2005, for Words for America by Barbara Kerley.
The Houdini Box, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991, reprinted, 2001.
The Robot King, Laura Geringer Books (New York, NY), 1995.
The Boy of a Thousand Faces, Laura Geringer Books (New York, NY), 2000.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2007.
Pam Conrad, Dollface Has a Party!, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1994.
Pam Conrad, Our House: The Stories of Leavittown, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995, tenth anniversary edition, 2005.
Andrew Clements, Frindle, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1996.
Norma Farber, The Boy Who Longed for a Lift, Laura Geringer Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Pam Muñoz Ryan, Riding Freedom, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Pam Muñoz Ryan, Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.
Laura Godwin, Barnyard Prayers, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2000.
Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, The Doll People, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2000.
Barbara Kerley, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.
Andrew Clements, The School Story, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
Pam Muñoz Ryan, When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson: The Voice of a Century, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2002.
Rosemary Wells, Wingwalker, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2002.
Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin, The Meanest Doll in the World, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2003.
Tor Seidler, The Dulcimer Boy, new edition, Laura Geringer Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Barbara Kerley, Walt Whitman: Words for America, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2004.
Andrew Clements, Lunch Money, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.
David Levithan, Marly's Ghost: A Remix of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, Dial (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor of illustrations to periodicals, including Cricket and Spider.
In addition to creating artwork for texts by a variety of children's authors, Brian Selznick became known as an author in his own right when his first original picture book, The Houdini Box, brought a burst of recognition and popularity rare in children's book publishing. The book is about magic, the kind created by performers such as early-twentieth-century escape artist Harry Houdini, as well as the everyday magic that grows from the human heart: the magic of growing up, creating a family, and making dreams come true. Reviewers responded enthusiastically to Selznick's debut work, applauding his evocative pencil illustrations, smooth prose style, and ability to mix mystery and fantasy in an engaging story. His more recent self-illustrated works, which include The Robot King and The Boy of a Thousand Faces, have elicited similar praise, Barbara Buckley noting in a School Library Journal review of The Boy of a Thousand Faces that "Selznick has his finger on the pulse of kids and what they love." Other popular books have also benefitted from Selznick's detailed artwork, among them Andrew Clements' popular young-adult novels Frindle, The School Story, and Lunch Money.
Although he published The Houdini Box at age twenty-three, Selznick did not originally plan on a career in juvenile literature, as he once explained to SATA. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1988, he wanted to design theater sets, but when he did not get into the graduate theater program he wanted, he decided to rethink his career plans. As Selznick recalled to SATA, during this time he realized:
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"What I love to do most of all is draw. I always loved children's books, so I thought, why am I fighting this? This is the most natural, obvious thing for me to do." This revelation prompted Selznick to refocus his creative efforts toward illustrating children's books.
While casting about for ideas for illustrations he could send to book editors as part of a portfolio, Selznick recalled a story he had written as part of a school project at RISD. "One week we got an assignment to do something about Houdini," he explained, "and I was really excited about that because when I was a kid Houdini was a hero of mine." This Houdini project consists of a series of seven Plexiglas panels that assemble into a folding screen, creating a three-dimensional display roughly the shape of a box. Each of the panels is painted with parts of a scene; when viewers look through the transparent structure they are presented with a complete picture of famous escape artist Harry Houdini performing his famous Chinese water torture escape. Selznick had been so caught up in the project that he went one step further and came up with a story, writing it on the back of the painted parts of each panel. "It's the exact same story that's in The Houdini Box," explained the author/illustrator, "except in a much shorter version."
Selznick made black-and-white drawings of several scenes from his story about Houdini and sent them off to children's book editors, and the entire idea was accepted for picture-book publication at Knopf. Selznick refined his text and added additional art, and the finished book appeared in 1991. The Houdini Box features ten-year-old Victor, who receives a box from Harry Houdini's widow that may or may not contain all the great magician's secrets, but the box is locked. When Victor notices that the initials on the box are E.W. and not H.H., he thinks: "This wasn't Houdini's box at all!" In his sadness and disappointment, Victor takes the box and buries it "forever at the bottom of his closet." It is not until many years later, after Victor is grown and married and has a young son of his own, that he learns Houdini's real name was Ehrich Weiss, the E.W. on the long-forgotten box. That night, after his wife and child are asleep, Victor creeps up to the attic to find the box. The lock has rusted through, and it opens easily, revealing to Victor the secrets hidden for so long.
According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, The Houdini Box expresses "the importance of faith and the ability to believe in the impossible," and the story's illustrations "bring added vitality to a captivating plot." Selznick's "strong, rhythmic prose is great for reading aloud," wrote Hazel Rochman in a review for Booklist, the critic also lauding the way the full-page drawings "with close cross-hatching show a dreamy, determined Victor."
When The Houdini Box was released, the newly published author/illustrator was working at Eeyore's Bookstore in New York City, where he sold books and painted window displays. Through one of his customers, writer and HarperCollins editor Laura Geringer, he got his next illustration project: creating art for Pam Conrad's Dollface Has a Party! When Conrad wrote the book, it was originally intended to teach English to Japanese students, and she imagined a small Japanese doll as the main character. To Selznick, however, "Dollface" sounded "like a gangster's moll from those old black-and-white gangster movies," as he remarked in his interview. He based the character of Dollface on a doll from the 1920s that he found in a flea market. At the time, she was wearing a 1970s-era pink pants suit, and since she was bald, Selznick gave her a pink bouffant hairdo made of yarn to match. "She is always looking at the world through this one arched eyebrow," Selznick commented. Conrad had envisioned a quiet little book, but when she saw Selznick's bright and wry drawings, he reported that her response was, "You made it really Broadway!"
Selznick has continued to produce both original picture books and illustrations for the works of others. His self-illustrated The Robot King was inspired by a radio announcer's discussion of a piece of music. "I was only paying half-attention," the author/illustrator recalled, "and it seemed like he said, 'That was "Waltz of the Robots."'" The phrase stayed with him, and he made a note in his journal, "Why would a robot dance?" The answer he came up with is "because his heart is a music box," and three years later Selznick completed work on the story that makes sense of the phrase. In his tale a brother and sister build a robot from odds and ends they find in their house, and for the heart they use a music box that belonged to their late mother. When the music box is wound up, the robot comes magically to life. The newly animated robot begins to animate other objects in the house, and then takes the children to the magical fairgrounds from one of Lucy's stories until the children see their father and return home.
The Robot King "has the flavor of a Victorian fairy tale," remarked Deborah Stevenson in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, "with electricity and technology forces of silent and incalculable magic and the sensibility more significant than the plotting." Jane Gardner Connor praised the artwork accompanying Selznick's original story, writing in School Library Journal that the author/illustrator's illustrations "do a good job of reflecting the somber, detached mood of the story."
The Boy of a Thousand Faces introduces readers to a ten year old who is in love with monsters. With a birthday on Halloween, Alonzo King is a loyal fan of Monsters at Midnight, a television program that reruns old horror movies selected by its host, the mysterious Mr. Shadows. Inspired by famous film actor Lon Chaney, Alonzo learns to make up his own face in a multitude of scary guises, and sends a photograph of his scariest face to Mr. Shadows. Before his idol can reply, Alonzo finds himself with more important concerns: Halloween is approaching, and seems to have summoned forth a creature called the Beast, which is lurking around town. In Booklist Michael Cart praised Selznick's "engaging story and … witty, eye-popping, black-and-white illustrations," while Buckley praised the book's "realistic pencil drawings" in her School Library Journal review as "expressive and suited to the story's mood." In Publishers Weekly a reviewer called The Boy of a Thousand Faces an "offbeat tale" in which Selznick's "characteristically detailed and moodily lit" art echoes the old films so loved by the story's young hero.
In his work as an illustrator, Selznick has created art for several authors, including Pam Muñoz Ryan, Andrew Clements, Ann M. Martin, Tor Seidler, and Rosemary Wells. One of his favorite illustration projects, Barbara Kerley's The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer, drew on his early love of dinosaurs and his interest in history in its story of sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, who worked with scientist Richard Owen and in 1853 unveiled the first life-sized models of dinosaurs ever made. Another collaboration with Kerley resulted in the award-winning picture-book biography Walt Whitman: Words for America, which focuses on the former poet laureate's love of the common man and his inspiring work during the U.S. Civil War. Calling the book "delightfully old fashioned in design," School Library Journal contributor Marilyn Taniguchi deemed Walt Whitman "an exuberant picture book" wherein Selznick'a "brilliantly inventive paintings add vibrant testimonial to the nuanced text." Jennifer Mattson, reviewing the work for Booklist, commented on the illustrator's "keen passion for research," and deemed the work a "sophisticated offering." In Publishers Weekly a reviewer concluded that the biography's "talented collaborators' affection and admiration for their subject" creates an "enthusiasm [that] is convincing and contagious."
Working with Muñoz Ryan, Selznick's nostalgia-inspired art enhances Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride and When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson, both of which are based on actual events. In Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride Selznick illustrates Ryan's account of the time U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt joined aviatrix Amelia Earhart in a plane ride over Washington, DC. Noting that Selznick's pencil drawings reflect the stylized art of the 1930s, when Roosevelt actually took to the skies, Ilene Cooper wrote in Booklist that both author and illustrator "clearly did their research" to create a story of "two strong women—real pioneers." Horn Book reviewer Roger Sutton cited Selznick's art in When Marian Sang as "impressive in sweep and scale." Noting the nostalgic quality of the sepiatoned paintings, a Kirkus Reviews writer noted that the illustrator's "carefully researched" acrylic paintings depicting African-American opera singer Marian Anderson's performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being denied entrance into Constitution Hall "a bravura performance."
According to a Publishers Weekly critic, Selznick's "detailed illustrations" for Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin's The Doll People and its sequel, The Meanest Doll in the World, capture the "diverse moods and perspectives" in the two doll families at the center of the series. In Kate Palmer's bedroom live two doll families that are sometimes at odds: the century-old pedigreed Doll family and the mass-produced plastic Funcraft family. While often forced to interact in play, the two families, including main characters Anabelle Doll and Tiffany Funcraft, are sometimes at odds due to their differences but they band together to solve a mystery. In The Meanest Doll in the World, they join forces again when they meet up with the vengeful Princess Mimi, the doll of the title, and attempt to stop Mimi's efforts to take control of all dolls. Praising Selznick's imaginative, humor-filled illustrations in The Meanest Doll in the World, Horn Book reviewer Martha V. Parravano wrote that, "in their wit and profusion," the artist's detailed pencil illustration combine all the story's subplots "together in one appealing package." Noting that Selznick's "clever title-page progression … is not to be missed," Booklist reviewer Karin Snelson deemed the illustrations "winningly expressive," while Katherine Devin wrote in School Library Journal that the book's "witty illustrations … do a fabulous job of extending the story."
Other books featuring Selznick's ability to capture moments of history through his detailed illustration include Our House: The Stories of Leavittown, an award-winning book by Pam Conrad that collects six short stories taking place in the small Long Island suburb at the start of the baby boom shortly after World War II. Mary M. Burns cited Selznick's "elegant pen-and-ink drawings" for enhancing Conrad's "finely crafted" collection. His paintings for Rosemary Wells' Wingwalker bring a "quiet gravity" to the story of a young boy's experiences up in the air with a stunt pilot in 1930s Oklahoma. Writing that Selznick "has a lock on the iconography of history as it intersects with dreams," a Kirkus Reviews writer praised his paintings as "full of sky, airplanes, and upward-looking faces," thereby bringing a sense of optimism to Wells' story of Depression-era life.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Selznick, Brian, The Houdini Box, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
American Bookseller, March, 1991, p. 47; January, 1992, p. 8.
Booklist, June 1, 1991, Hazel Rochman, review of The Houdini Box, p. 1875; January 1, 1996, Linda Perkins, review of Our House: The Story of Levittown, p. 833; May 15, 1997, Michael Cart, review of The Boy Who Longed for a Lift, p. 1579; October 15, 1999, Ilene Cooper, review of Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride: Based on a True Story, p. 447; September 15, 2000, Michael Cart, review of The Boy of a Thousand Faces, p. 244; October 15, 2003, review of The Meanest Doll in the World, p. 412; November 15, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of Walt Whitman: Words for America, p. 575.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1991, Roger Sutton, review of The Houdini Box, p. 250; October, 1995, Deborah, Stevenson, review of The Robot King, p. 69.
Children's Book Review Service, May, 1991, p. 117.
Horn Book, November-December, 1995, Mary M. Burns, review of Our House p. 740; May-June, 1997, Martha V. Parravano, review of The Boy Who Longed for a Lift, p. 305; July, 2001, Roger Sutton, review of The School Story, p. 448; July-August, 2002, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Wingwalker, p. 474; November-December, 2002, Roger Sutton, review of When Marian Sang, p. 780; November-December, 2003, Martha V. Parravano, review of The Meanest Doll in the World, p. 751; November-December, 2004, Kathleen Isaacs, review of Walt Whitman, p. 729.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 1991, p. 538; April 15, 2002, review of Wingwalker, p. 581; September 1, 2002, review of When Marian Sang, p. 1319; September 15, 2004, review of Walt Whitman, p. 915.
New York, February 19, 1990, p. 26.
Passaic Herald-News, April 21, 1991.
Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1991, review of The Houdini Box, p. 72; September 20, 1999, review of Riding Freedom, p. 90; December 20, 1999, review of Barnyard Prayers, p. 78; August 14, 2000, review of The Boy of a Thousand Faces, p. 356; May 28, 2001, review of The School Story, p. 88; March 25, 2002, review of Wingwalker, p. 65; August 11, 2003, review of The Meanest Doll in the World, p. 280; November 10, 2003, review of The Meanest Doll in the World, p. 37; October 18, 2004, review of Walt Whitman, p. 64.
San Diego Union, May 5, 1991.
School Library Journal, September, 1991, p. 241; October, 1995, Jane Gardner Connor, review of The Robot King, pp. 139-140; September, 2000, Barbara Buckley, review of The Boy of a Thousand Faces, p. 209; June, 2001, Terrie Dorio, review of The School Story, p. 144; May, 2002, Heide Piehler, review of Wingwalker, p. 162; November, 2002, Wendy Lukehart, review of When Marian Sang, p. 147; November 2004, Marilyn Taniguchi, review of Walt Whitman, p. 166.
Children's Book Council Web site, http://www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/ (June 7, 2006), Brian Selznick, "The Fine Art of Collaboration."
Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC Web site, http://www.childrensbookguild.org/ (June 7, 2006), Margaret Blair, "Brian Selznick, Following His 'Gut Instinct.'"
Scholastic Web site, http://www.books.scholastic.com/ (June 7, 2006), interview with Selznick.