Editor and author David Levithan’s conversation with Caldecott Medal winner Brian Selznick began with an introduction by PEN Children’s Committee chair Susanna Reich. Reich invited the 50 attendees to join the Children’s Committee and help with its valuable work of organizing presentations and panels, sponsoring authors to speak in schools and prisons, publishing conversations with notable authors on the PEN blog, and administering two awards.
The conversation itself and the audience questions afterward focused on three themes: 1) Selznick’s attraction to history and technology, 2) the ground-breaking interaction of pictures, text, and film in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, and 3) his openness about being a gay children’s book creator. Addressing the place of history in his books, Selznick said that what most fascinates him is how his characters can make their way through the world without the technology on which we have come to depend today. That doesn’t mean he has banished technology from his stories; rather, he has sought to explore the technology that existed at the time his characters lived. Like writers of steampunk, Selznick is especially interested in the technology of the early 20th century, “where you could make everything…with your own hands.” Many of those inventions that were made by hand were also given ornate decorations, which showed the care that went into them and the personalities of their inventors. Selznick also talked about his decision to set part of Wonderstruck in the 1970s, when he was a child living in suburban New Jersey. That part of the novel is set in New York City at a particularly difficult time (a time that included the financial crisis, the blackout and riots, and a serial killer on the loose), and he said that “If you can fall in love with a place at the worst time, you can fall in love with it at any time.”