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Brian Selznick and Leonard S. Marcus on Randolph Caldecott

RandolphCaldecottI'll admit it, I've known about the Caldecott medal for many years and seen it's seal on countless books even before I got into the book business, but I never knew anything about the man for whom the award is named.  Until now.  Leonard S. Marcus, himself a renowed historian and critic of children's books has written a fascinating biography, Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing, filled with unseen illustrations including some from Caldecott's last sketchbook.  Caldecott had an interesting life; he crossed paths with people like James McNeill Whistler, sought out adventure, and become an innovator in the world of children's picture books that resonates today.  

In this Omni exclusive, author Leonard S. Marcus and Brian Selznick, himself a recipient of the Caldecott Medal for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, talk about the man who inspired so many of today's best known children's picture book authors and illustrators.  You can read the rest after the jump.

Leonard S. Marcus: When you began your career as a picture book artist, what did you know about Randolph Caldecott?

Brian Selznick: At that time all I really knew about him was the award sticker with its image of a galloping rider. As a child I had a storybook treasury with illustrations by many classic artists. One section was a compressed version of Randolph Caldecott’s House That Jack Built. But when I was starting out professionally I didn’t have his drawings in mind. But then I didn’t know very much about any illustrator!

I first began to understand what an innovator Caldecott was when I read Maurice Sendak’s essay collection, Caldecott & Co.:Notes on Books & Pictures, in which he talks about how much he learned from him about bringing drawings to life on the page.

LSM: Do you see a connection between what Caldecott was doing and what might be called a cinematic way of storytelling?

BS: Moving images have become central to the way we think about telling stories, and we can see all the seeds for that in Caldecott’s picture books.

I am very interested in what you say about that in your book. For instance, what you write about Caldecott’s possible connection to the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose stop-action photographic sequences of people and animals in motion were among the true precursors of the moving picture. As you show, Caldecott’s picture books are themselves almost a kind of moving picture.

LSM: Train travel was still new then and Caldecott liked to draw while on board trains. The world was getting smaller—and faster. In 1870s London where he launched his career, there were the panorama shows people bought tickets to see and the zoetrope arcades. Joseph Turner and James McNeill Whistler were painting kinetic landscapes and seascapes that looked like a shimmering blur.

BS: The whole world was rushing forward at a gallop, and artists like Caldecott, Muybridge, and others were latching on to that impulse and figuring out how to make images move. I’m also drawn to the fact that the technology of the time was itself still handmade. You could go into a workshop you had built for yourself and carve out a gear and cut a piece of wood and make a shutter and pull a latch and have a spring—and invent a new kind of camera. A magician like Georges Méliès could go home, as he does in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and take pieces from the automatons he owned and build his own movie camera. The hand of the human being was still part of it, and for me there is a connection between that and the book as an art form: from the drawing of the pictures to the turning of the page.

LSM: Caldecott invented a new kind of book. Yet he started out life as an unassuming, amiable English Midlands lad growing up fifteen miles from Liverpool. As an adult he had a deep baritone voice and a sparkling manner. If we could hear him speak, he would probably sound exactly like Ringo Starr.

BS: It’s interesting that the early Caldecott drawings you show in your book are so stiff. The great change starts in his first drawing for Punch, a chase scene with coattails flying and legs splayed. Suddenly, he’s able to get that dramatic sense of forward motion.

Then just a few years later, when he makes his first picture books, he becomes so inventive--with his page turns, with his radical use of white space, with all of the work he did in adding other stories within the pictures that are not in the words. It was all very much like what a director does now when making a film.

LSM: Caldecott would stretch a brief nursery rhyme like “Hey Diddle Diddle” into the text for an entire book.

BS: You can see what Maurice Sendak learned from that, not only in Where the Wild Things Are but also in so many of his other books. Look, for instance, at How Little Lori Visited Times Square, written by Amos Vogel. There’s this amazing sequence where the turtle asks the young boy, who has lost his way in the big city, “Are you crying, my little friend?” Every one of those words is on a different full-page spread. So Maurice is making you hear the turtle speaking r-e-a-l-l-y   s-l-o-w-l-y by what he does with the page turns. That was such a revelation, that the simple technology of the picture book could be used to do all of these very interesting, strange, innovative things, and that the innovations can continue. I now see that there’s no end to what a picture book can do.

LSM: Caldecott kept varying the relationship of one illustration to the next. He used what we would call “close-ups,” “flashbacks,” and “flash-forwards” and would swing back and forth between line drawings and full-color illustrations.

BS: For me the greatest moment in the history of film comes in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out the door of the black-and-white world of her Kansas home and into the Technicolor world of Oz. I think about that moment almost every time I plan a page turn. But it wasn’t until reading your book that I went back and looked at Caldecott and thought about the interplay between his line drawings and full-color images, and the thrilling experience he made out of those transitions. Because the interior illustrations in my recent books are black-and-white, all I can do is remember that thrilling feeling and try to make each page-turn as dramatic as possible.

LSM: I loved finding out that because Caldecott knew his books would be sold at bookstalls on rail platforms all across England, he made the cover designs big and bold enough to be read at a glance from a passing train.

BS: That reminds me of when I first moved to New York and worked at Eeyore’s Books for Children and was asked to do the window displays. I didn’t have much in the way of materials to work with, so I painted directly on the window glass. I made sure that whatever I painted was big enough to catch the eye of people riding the bus up Broadway. So when I started doing book covers, just like Caldecott I tried to make sure that the images were big and bold enough to catch the attention of passersby.

But I want to ask you about Randolph Caldecott’s sense of humor. It seems to me that many of the innovations we’ve been talking about grow out of his sense of humor: the idea, for instance, of adding another story in the pictures to the one that’s there in the text.

LSM: Yes, I think that has a lot to do with his love of mischief, and his idea that the words and pictures of a book could be played off against each other, with the reader caught in the middle of what becomes a fascinating game.

BS: I’ve also noticed that in Caldecott’s books the levity and mischief often give way to an undercurrent of sadness on the visual side of his storytelling. That image of Baby Bunting, for instance, where the little child wearing a rabbit skin as a sort of costume sees a live rabbit come along—and seems clearly to be making the connection between life and death. Or in Hey Diddle Diddle, the poor dish falling over and cracking, and the spoon being led away by her parents. There’s such a sense of melancholy in that, which made me think about the fact that, as you say in your book, Caldecott grew up and lived his life as a person with a lot of illness. I had asthma and was very sick as a kid, so I feel a strong connection. Maurice Sendak was a frail child and famously looked out his window and sketched the healthier children in the street below. Martin Scorsese was a sickly child, too. Reading about Caldecott’s illness, it seems that it might well have affected his work.

But to go back to words and pictures: Maurice Sendak talked about that, too--the idea of illuminating a text as opposed to illustrating it. Instead of simply showing what the text says—here’s Little Miss Muffet, here’s her tuffet--the artist can create a larger story that makes us see the text in a completely different way.

LSM: One of the things that make picture books endlessly fascinating to me is the fact that words and pictures can never fall into perfect alignment. There’s always going to be a disconnect.

BS: Yes, and that is where the magic happens! When you’re looking at a book by Caldecott or a book by Sendak, you’re looking at that weird broken space between the words and pictures where the reader must come and finish the work. All this was very much on my mind when I was making The Invention of Hugo Cabret and even more so for Wonderstruck

Hugo Cabret tells a single story going back and forth between words and pictures. The pictures hand the narrative over to the text, the text hands it back to the pictures, and you need both to understand the single narrative that is being told. But with Wonderstruck, I’m telling two different stories, one with pictures that takes place in the 1920s, and the other with words that takes place in the 1970s. Eventually the two stories come together. I felt like I was writing three different books. The third book was the one about what happens when the two stories intersect. I had to build the book so that the stories worked separately but also together, and I love knowing that this is exactly what Randolph Caldecott strived to do, too.




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